Friday, December 15, 2006

Fever pitch


It was the great unanswered question of this Red Sox offseason: Will Daisuke Matsuzaka call Fenway Park home in 2007? And now that it has been answered with a resounding "yes," an affirmation that can be heard all the way to the heart of the Pacific Rim, and now that we've tracked the flight plan of John Henry's plane on Sons of Sam Horn, cheered the would-be ace's arrival on the tarmac, watched every last minute of the "Matsuzaka Marathon" and the surreal press conference on NESN, and wondered just what he makes of all of this, here are a few more questions and answers regarding the new No. 18 in your program:

Did Theo Epstein and the Sox front office handle this as flawlessly as it appears? Let's put it this way: This entire situation has restored my wavering faith in this front office. Make no mistake, Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino and the rest played the game brilliantly, from beginning to end. They targeted Matsuzaka as the pitcher they simply had to have this offseason, blew the dumbstruck Yankees and everyone else out of the water with the eye-popping posting bid, realized they had all the leverage and held their ground despite Scott Boras's transparent but effective make-'em-sweat negotiating machinations, and ultimately signed a 26-year old pitcher whom everyone in baseball likes (more on that in a second) to a six-year deal for an annual average salary that is more than $2 million less than that of career mediocrity Gil Meche. Yeah, I'd say they handled it flawlessly. I haven't felt this good about this management team since October, 2004.

Will he live up to the Japanese Pedro billing, will he be the second coming of the Fat *$&#@ Toad, or will he be something in between? Let's get something straight right away: he will not be another Pedro. Petey's stretch of dominance from '98-'00 was a once-in-a-fan's-lifetime gift from the sports gods, and it's not fair to ask anyone to live up to that standard. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way . . . I'm convinced he's going to be very good, as in Cy Young-candidate-good, and I believe that for this reason: Even when those in the know around baseball were taken aback by the Sox's enormous posting bid, no one - and I mean no one - questioned whether Matsuzaka was a worthwhile investment. I am yet to hear or read comments from a scout or an insider with first-person familiarity with Matsuzaka who does not believe he's going to be an outstanding major league pitcher immediately. From what I've seen (thanks, YouTube) and heard, he looks like a young Mike Mussina, but with a better fastball, and while that's not Pedro territory, you're damned right it's high praise. Man, I cannot wait to watch this kid throw the baseball.

Was there a specific point during the negotiations when you became certain a deal would happen? When ESPN's Steve Phillips said it wouldn't. Seriously. How did that boob-with-a-pulpit ever get a GM gig? He must have nudie pictures of the owner groping Mr. Met or something. Actually, as I wrote a few days, I thought this was going to happen all along, despite the tension and posturing by both sides during the negotiations. A deal simply made sense for everyone involved: The Sox clearly were sincere in their desire of the player and were willing to pay a reasonable price, Matsuzaka has hungered to pitch in the majors for a few years now and had no intention of returning to Japan for another season, the financially strapped Seibu ballclub had already announced how it was allocating the posting fee and may or may not have been in cahoots with the Sox regarding a threat to send Matsuzaka to the minors if he returned, and Boras needed to make a deal or risk losing credibility with a Japanese public that does not look upon greed as favorably as does a lizard-skinned baseball agent. Despite all the countdown-clock drama, the signing was inevitable.

What's the Japanese word for "guts"? To put it another way, can he handle the pressure of Boston? Ah, the question every self-important TV talking head is oh-so-seriously contemplating these days. We're only going to say this once, so listen up, all you vacant hairdos and Jim Rome wannabes: Matsuzaka became a national icon in Japan when he was in high school; he's carried the weight of a nation on his right shoulder for eight years, and despite the pressure, he somehow managed to emerge as the premier pitcher in the land. Something tells me he's going to be just fine handling the weight of Red Sox Nation. As for the melodramatic overkill of the last few days? He's used to it; I worry more for his teammates, who are in for a claustrophobic surprise when they realize how many Japanese media will be cramming into their clubhouse every day. But given what he's put up with already, a few bleacher blowhards and yowling ninnies like Gary Tanguay aren't going to affect him, though it probably helps that he doesn't speak much English. (I did love Shaughnessy's suggestion that Matsuzaka throw out his AM radio. Heaven knows I should do the same.)

Why is Doug Mirabelli gently weeping into his chicken parm? Because yesterday was supposed to be his day, dammit. And he didn't even get a police escort this time! You can bet Dr. Charles Steinberg will be hearing about this. You do not treat the world's most famous .193-hitting, 36-year-old backup catcher this way without having hell to pay!

Did Glenn Ordway, in the rare moments when he wasn't instigating a catfight between vapid Steve Burton and disingenuous Dale Arnold today, actually stumble upon a great idea? Shockingly, yes, when he suggested NESN should air a handful of Matsuzaka's Japanese League games so fans could have a chance to become familiar with him. It's a shrewd idea to feed our baseball jones while filling out those blase winter programming blocks, and I'd be surprised if Tom Werner hadn't already begun looking into it. Come to think of it, Ordway probably lifted the idea from him.

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:


Speaking of Ordway, judging by his pronunciation, I'm pretty sure he thinks this guy is Matsuzaka's agent. It's Bor-ASS, Glennie. You'd think he'd be familiar with the second syllable.

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