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Matsuzaka makes Olympics pitch

By Alex Prewitt
Globe Correspondent / July 30, 2012
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NEW YORK — As a teenager in Tokyo, faced with mutually exclusive dreams, two roads diverged for Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Down one path, the enticing allure of fame and fortune stared back at the country’s hottest high school prospect. Matsuzaka also always dreamed of going to the Olympics. Representing Japan, athletically and culturally, on the international stage beckoned.

But since baseball was introduced as an official Olympic sport in 1992 at Barcelona, players had to be amateurs. It was one or the other for Matsuzaka. Professional baseball or the Olympiad.

“So, when I had to make that decision, I really put a lot of thought into it, typical pro or go to college and play in the Olympics before I became professional,” Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler. “But it all worked out well.”

He chose to enter the draft, and was picked first overall by the Seibu Lions in 1998. Soon after, the International Baseball Federation decided to allow professionals to compete at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Matsuzaka had his baseball cake and ate it, too.

“Just having the opportunity to represent your country is something that only people who have been given the opportunity will understand, both the good and bad,” Matsuzaka said. “But it’s something that really had an effect on my life.’’

Matsuzaka and his team stayed in an offsite hotel during the Games, not in the athlete village. He missed the opening ceremony, instead watching it on TV, which only made him long to be present even more.

Matsuzaka allowed seven earned runs in 27 innings, 10 of which came in a 13-inning loss to the United States. Japan finished fourth, and Matsuzaka took the loss in the bronze-medal match against Korea, though he struck out 10 and allowed no earned runs through eight innings.

But he got his hardware in 2004 alongside Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees’ starting pitcher Sunday. Kuroda, whose mother competed in the shot put in the 1964 Tokyo Games, went 2-0 in relief for Japan in Athens, beating the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei, and hurled three scoreless innings against Canada in the bronze-medal game.

Matsuzaka pitched well but without run support, losing a semifinal to Australia, 1-0.

The International Olympic Committee decided in 2005 to cut baseball and softball from the London Olympic calendar. It will also be absent from the 2016 Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro. A vote will take place in September of 2013 to fill the one open spot for the 2020 Olympics.

The International Baseball and Softball Federations have merged to launch a joint bid for reinstatement, but they face an uphill battle in convincing MLB to allow its players to participate, an increasingly less likely scenario given the World Baseball Classic’s plan to play every two years beginning in 2013.

Count Matsuzaka among the supporters for baseball’s reinstatement. But restoration might be more difficult than simply swaying voters.

“It’s an interesting situation,” said Yankees infielder Jayson Nix, who won bronze with the United States in 2008. “I don’t think you’ll ever get the best of our players to go over there and play. That’s one thing. Teams have too much money invested in their best players to help them win games.”

Nix went 3 for 14 in Beijing with three runs, one double, and one homer, and was 1 for 4 in the United States’ 8-4 win over Japan in the bronze-medal game. By that time, Matsuzaka and Kuroda had taken up residence in the majors.

“It was still very competitive,” Nix said. “Cuba, South Korea, Japan, there’s a lot of solid teams. In that regard, even though we’re not sending our best players, we expected to win and could have won.

“That’s all that goes into getting teams together, I feel like there’s enough competitive teams throughout the countries that it makes it a good sport to have.”

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