Baseball: Daisuke Matsuzaka bidding tough test for Boston Red Sox and Japan
Christopher Johnson, Wednesday, December 13, 2006
TOKYO — If the Boston Red Sox and American Major League Baseball were hoping to expand their base of loyal fans to Japan by bidding $51 million for a Seibu Lions pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, a grueling negotiation process is not the best way to do it.
With the midnight Thursday deadline approaching in the eastern United States, many Japanese are worried that what they perceived as American hardball negotiating tactics, by both the Red Sox and Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, which are being reported in great detail by Japanese, could result in the pitcher coming back home with a loss of face and a lack of souvenirs.
On Japanese TV, the baseball talks are bigger news than the six-party negotiations with North Korea. Commentators on morning shows normally devoted to corporate scandals analyze the nuance of every non-Japanese move made by Boras or the Red Sox general manager, Theo Epstein, and its president, Larry Lucchino.
This is not how Toyota or Mitsubishi would recruit a potential employee. Epstein and Lucchino made a show out of flying to California on Monday and holding talks Tuesday with Boras at his offices in Newport Beach.
Japanese, accustomed to quiet diplomacy behind closed doors, have watched the Red Sox complain publicly that Boras has not made a counteroffer. Epstein said that they needed to agree on a deal by Wednesday to leave time for a physical examination in Boston before the deadline, The Associated Press reported.
Boras said his client should get a contract worth $100 million over five or six years, in addition to the $51.1 million the Red Sox would have to pay the Lions. The New York Times reported that he said that the Red Sox had not shown “respect,” a word that carries extra weight in Confucian Japan, where players are expected to be salarymen first, athletes second.
In the long term, everyone loses if a deal doesn’t go through. Boston would keep their $51 million bidding fee, and also block the New York Yankees, who bid $30 million. But Boston would lose its pitcher — and lose face in Japan, which translates into millions in lost advertising and sales of team apparel.
Matsuzaka would have to return to a reported $2 million-a-year job with Seibu, a team he at first didn’t want to play for when he was drafted as a national hero out of high school. He still has two years left on his contract.
Even if Matsuzaka, 26, signs with the Sox, and Kei Igawa, 27, reaches a deal by Dec. 28 with the Yankees, who posted $26 million to buy his rights from the Hanshin Tigers, both pitchers will have to overturn their country’s reputation for burning out pitchers too soon.
Their maturity and form, which has enticed the huge bids, is built on a quantity of work that might undermine the long-term strength of a pitcher’s arm.
In the fall, when American major leaguers head for vacation, Japanese pitchers continue training. Receiving monthly pay like other salarymen, they often throw more pitches in a day — 250 — than their American counterparts will in a week.
“It’s like a time bomb. When is it going to go off?” said Marty Kuehnert, an American-born resident of Japan and the first foreign general manager of a Japanese pro team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. “Any Japanese pitcher, these guys included, has thrown too much. The Japanese mentality is that it will make them stronger. But if I was trying to sign these guys, I’d take a good look at them.”
Foreign players in Japan often joke that Japanese are “all thrown out at age 30” because of rigorous training from the age of 12, Kuehnert said by phone from Sendai, Japan. “They throw easily two to three times more pitches in their career than Americans,” he said. “They play 360 days out of the year. It’s taken to an extreme that you don’t see in America. So the level is very high, but they break down sooner.”
Pitchers have a more mixed record in the major leagues than Japanese hitters like Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and Ichiro Suzuki, who Seattle bought from Orix BlueWave for $13.1 million in 1998. Hideo Nomo and Kazuhiro Sasaki won Rookie of the Year honors and broke records, but Hideki Irabu never lived up to his billing with the Yankees and went 34-35 with a 5.14 earned run average. Kazuhisa Ishii returned to Japan after a 3-9 year with the New York Mets. Another Met, Masato Yoshii, went 32-47.
Kuehnert said Igawa’s arm was too sore to throw toward the end of the 2006 season. Manager Bobby Valentine, who has captured titles with the New York Mets and the Chiba Lotte Marines, his current Japanese team, said Igawa’s “stuff was a little more crisp” when he first saw the pitcher a few years ago.
While overthrowing is “a definite concern,” Valentine said the superior mechanics of Japanese pitchers might help them outlast Americans, who emphasize throwing harder, though less often. “Pitchers in Japan are taught at a very early age what proper form is,” he said by phone from his home in Connecticut. “They’re less prone to injury than in America, where they deal with results rather than form. If Matsuzaka is going to have an arm problem, he probably already would have had it in high school.”
Matsuzaka became a national hero in high school, throwing 250 pitches in a 17-inning quarterfinal victory and then a no-hitter in the national baseball final, perhaps Japan’s top sporting event, before 55,000 fans at Koshien. He was following the example of the all-time home run king, Sadaharu Oh, who in 1957 pitched four winning games in four days while hiding his blistered hand from teammates.
Although Matsuzaka and Igawa struggled at times as professionals, both have had strong years. In March, Matsuzaka won three games and was named the most valuable player as Japan triumphed in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Then he went 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts for Seibu. Igawa went 14-9 with a 2.97 ERA and won his third Central League strikeout title.
Kuehnert calls them “good guys.”
Despite their strong recent form, the combined $77 million transfer fees the Red Sox and Yankees would pay in addition to their contracts make them high-risk investments.
Valentine and Kuehnert agree that the Red Sox and Yankees hope the pitchers will be the missing pieces that lead them to the World Series.
Kuehnert said it was more cost-effective to invest millions in proven Japanese players who can win 15 games a year than grooming 100 minor leaguers in America who may, or may not, reach the majors.
If the two stars depart, it will have an impact at home. “It’s going to be a huge void for Japanese baseball,” Valentine said. “The money Seibu receives will probably go into the corporate entity, not into the baseball team. I’m not faulting the owners. I’m faulting the system that allows this to happen.
“Japanese baseball undervalues the assets that they have. They don’t market the players and the league as they should. They’re more appreciated on the other side of the pond.”
— Wed, 12/13/06