The Riddle (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 9:59AM; Updated: Wednesday March 21, 2007 2:15PM
It's all unheard-of stuff Stateside. But it is explained by the concept of doryoku, or unflagging effort, which in Japanese baseball is seen as a prime virtue. The great home run hero Sadaharu Oh valued doryoku so highly that he included the word in every autograph.
You ask Matsuzaka, through an interpreter, about using ice, the standard American precaution, and what you get first is that knowing smile and a little laugh.
Then he says, "No, never."
Matsuzaka throws eight known pitches -- eight! -- and is tougher than Sanskrit for hitters to read because he has the confidence to throw any of them at any time and can put all of them in an open mailbox from 20 paces. He has the equipment to be the greatest rookie pitching phenomenon since Dwight Gooden in 1984, greater certainly than his forebearer Hideo Nomo, who for all the cross-cultural excitement he generated in 1995 won only 13 games.
More important, Matsuzaka is a potential agent of change. It's his throwing regimen, rather than his place of birth, that makes him the ultimate foreigner to major league baseball. If he succeeds in the U.S., he could transform the accepted industry practice of overprotecting pitchers. The system guarantees diminishing returns: Despite advances in medicine, nutrition and training, teams work pitchers less than ever before and yet pay them more.
"After being part of this for three years," former big league manager Bobby Valentine says by e-mail from Japan, where he's the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, "I am convinced we do a bad job of coaching in the U.S. for pitchers."
Fact is, Matsuzaka would not be this Matsuzaka if he had been born in the States. Says Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, "I'm not even sure he would have been drafted out of high school, as a 5'11" righthander who was pushed like that at such a young age."
Matsuzaka represents a clash of cultures that goes well beyond the standard laundry list of adjustments involving food, language, customs and entertainment. (Good luck explaining sports talk radio to him after the Sox blow a game late to the Yanks.) What happens when a pitcher from the East, this good at this age, meets Western baseball philosophy? What happens when he encounters the pitch-count clicker, that all-powerful totem worshiped by American managers and coaches? What does manager Terry Francona do when Matsuzaka has thrown 120 pitches into the eighth inning? How much do the Red Sox Americanize the pitcher?
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