'The rematch with the genius'
Baseball world awaits Ichiro-Matsuzaka showdown
Posted: Wednesday April 11, 2007 11:31AM; Updated: Wednesday April 11, 2007 2:45PM
BOSTON -- Here at this sacred baseball cathedral that lies more than 6,700 miles from Tokyo, there is a Dunkin' Donuts sign above the outfield bleachers with the words "Welcome to Fenway" written in Japanese, sushi being served in the media dining room, and 150 giddy members of the Japanese press crammed into the media quarters.
How huge will the Ichiro-Dice K rumble be in Japan, where it'll be 8:05 a.m. when the two Japanese megastars face off during the first pitch of tonight's Red Sox-Mariners game? On the eve of baseball's answer to Ali-Frazier, Ichiro, the right fielder who Japanese reporters privately describe as almost always aloof and often arrogant, considered the question and scoffed, "I'm in America. Please ask someone in Japan."
Make no mistake: Ichiro knows. He knows that this event is, as Japanese freelance sportswriter Hideki Okuda described to me, "historic." He knows that many of his country's most prominent journalists have converged upon Fenway. He knows that the world will be watching to see if he fails as miserably as he did eight years ago, when he was the best hitter in Japan, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, an 18-year-old, baby-faced phenom fresh out of high school, struck him out three consecutive times. "I was somewhat unsure of myself before, but now my confidence has become a conviction," Matsuzaka proclaimed after the feat.
Ichiro knows that Matsuzaka has been waiting for this moment. "When he first signed the contract with the Red Sox, Matsuzaka said, 'I am looking forward to facing Ichiro,'" says Okuda. "He didn't even mention [Hideki] Matsui's name. He didn't even mention [Kenji] Johjima's name. He only said Ichiro's name."
Ichiro knows that this one game is an opportunity to re-establish himself as his country's biggest star. The six-time All-Star, who last faced Matsuzaka seven years ago in Japan as a member of the Orix Blue Wave (in 10 games he went 8-for-34 against the right-hander), loves the spotlight. "It's been a long time [since] Ichiro has played in such a big game," says another Japanese reporter. "Of course he doesn't want to embarrass himself again. And yes, maybe he is a little jealous of the attention Matsuzaka is getting. Right now, Matsuzaka may be the biggest name in Japan."
Although Ichiro's relationship with Yankees left fielder Matsui is icy at best, the Mariners star and Matsuzaka have become close friends since they were teammates during last year's World Baseball Classic. This spring they lunched together in Japan, and since then they've often talked over the phone. Ichiro, though, insists he hadn't watched any video of Matsuzaka's seven-inning, 10-strikeout performance against the Royals last Thursday. "It's been such a long time ago [since facing Matsuzaka] that I don't remember many things," he said on Tuesday.
After the Red Sox's batting practice on Tuesday, Matsuzaka sought out his rival and friend, who was playing catch near third base. "Ichiro-san," the Boston ace called out. The two nodded to each other, shook hands and laughed. A mob of Japanese photographers raced across the field to document the moment.
The scene will be even crazier today, when 170 members of the Japanese media are expected at Fenway. Over 125 Japanese news outlets covered Matsuzaka's debut in Kansas City, and the top sports paper in the country, Nikkan Sports, has been running daily stories on the Ichiro-Dice K duel. A headline in its April 7 edition read: "It's the rematch with the genius we've all been waiting for."
At last, the moment is here, and both Ichiro and Matsuzaka know: The baseball world will be watching.