The Riddle (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 9:59AM; Updated: Wednesday March 21, 2007 2:15PM
The compact "tall and fall" delivery is technically sound, a Sousa march with no wasted elements. Matsuzaka's free-flowing, drop-and-drive delivery is improvisational, like live jazz. As American coaches would see it, Matsuzaka is coloring outside the lines when he turns his front shoulder slightly away from the hitter and swings his hands and left foot slightly past parallel with the rubber. But in Japan, pitching styles are less rigorously enforced, and Matsuzaka learned from watching.
"As a child I spent a lot of time imitating [Japanese] professional baseball players," he said. "Over time, putting the pieces together, that led to my own form being revealed. Not that it resembles any particular pitcher, but something that evolved naturally through practice."
Now Matsuzaka is the frog in the most famous haiku of Japan's most famous poet. He is hitting the water of the old pond that is major league baseball with an unmistakable splash. Matsuzaka grew up dreaming of such a jump, a wish practically unheard of for the generations of Japanese children before him. When it came to baseball, Japan embraced the island mentality, enchanted by its own leagues and its own rich history and unwilling to risk the possibility of its players' failing in the major leagues. Then Nomo jumped in 1995, did well, and a bridge was built. Matsuzaka was in ninth grade then, with his eye on America.
"Though I am not aware of all the details leading up to his departure from Japan," Matsuzaka says of Nomo, "there was some controversy, and in general it can be said it was not a very healthy departure. That said, to see him single-handedly face this brand-new, challenging environment left a big impression on me and was inspiring.
"As for the risk of [Nomo's] failure, as someone who actually had seen his performance in Japan and seen how great he had been, there wasn't even a thought in my mind that he would fail. That's the way I was thinking in the ninth grade."
Matsuzaka's own legend was born in 1998, when as a senior at Yokohama High he pitched in the famed Koshien tournament, Japan's equivalent of March Madness. Clay Daniel, working at the time for the Arizona Diamondbacks, watched the performance. "I saw him throw nine innings, then nine innings, then 17 innings, come in and close a game for one inning, take a day off, then throw a no-hitter in the championship game," says Daniel, now supervisor of international scouting for the Angels. "In Japan the pitcher wears number 1, the catcher number 2, and so on. He was number 1. After I saw him pitch nine innings he was out there again the next day, and I was thinking, 'Can that be the same little runt wearing number 1?'
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