One thousand four hundred and thirty miles separate Kansas City from Boston.
Even more – some 7,000 – separate one of the Midwest’s largest metropolises from Tokyo.
Yet there Wednesday, at the top of the Kansas City Star’s front page, was Daisuke Matsuzaka, the subject of a lengthy story about the media crush descending on the Kansas City Royals.
Matsuzaka wasn’t even pitching that day.
The story wasn’t the first the Star would run on the visitors’ starting pitcher. The next day, it ran an enormous Matsuzaka profile. After his dominant start, it ran a full-page diagram of each pitch the Japanese phenom threw. From Wednesday to Friday, those three items were three more than the Star ran on the Royals’ best hitter (Mike Sweeney), its starter Wednesday (Odalis Perez) and its starter Thursday (Zack Greinke) -- combined.
It’s one thing to hear about Matsuzaka Mania. It’s quite another to see it.
It was clear almost from the start that Matsuzaka was big news, even in the Midwest.
At the Kansas City Zoo and Union Station, prime tourist attractions, most of the visitors passing the time until Wednesday night’s game wore Red Sox caps. Matsuzaka wasn’t scheduled until the next day, but the fans I talked to spoke only of him – and the weather.
Beckett was on the hill Wednesday. We went cheap, walking up an hour before the game and buying two tickets for $7 each. It also was dollar concessions night, meaning two tickets, two dogs and one hot chocolate cost less than $20.
The reported game-time temperature was just 42 degrees, still a deceptively warm number taken with the sun still setting behind the third base grandstand. Within minutes of sunset, the temperature plummeted.
David Ortiz at the plate Wednesday from our cheap-seat, bird's-eye view.
The cold clearly affected play on the field. Mike Lowell committed an unheard-of three errors, although the first could just as easily have been ruled a single. Josh Beckett, whether because of the cold or some other cause, could not control his breaking pitches, getting strikes only when the outfield radar readings touched 94 or 95 – as high as 97 in the middle innings.
From our vantage point, although he threw more breaking pitches than last year, Beckett benefited from the inexperience and otherwise poor quality of the KC hitters, as well as the cold conditions. Able to throw only his fastball for strikes, he was tagged several times for drives that in warmer weather would have left the park.
The cold cut both ways, robbing, among others, J.D. Drew and Manny Ramirez of home runs this week.
As the Sox increased their lead Wedesday against the shabby Royal bullpen, the stands cleared and hawkers ditched their beer for warmer libations. Hot chocolate sold out in minutes.
By the end of the game, Red Sox fans far outnumbered those of the home team, though most everyone was muted. Strangely, the strongest reaction was for former Royal Kyle Snyder, whom the hometown fans booed lustily, despite the fact that he had no control over being placed on waivers or being claimed last year by Boston.
Apparent Kansas City pariah Kyle Snyder
warms up before Thursday's game.
The Red Sox’ bullpen was a pleasant surprise – Joel Pineiro in particular as he touched 93 on the gun in working a 1-2-3 ninth and sending us scrambling for our car heaters.
“It’s Dice-K time,” pronounced the Kansas City Star on Thursday. It might have been a warning to the Royals’ hitters.
Before Kauffman Stadium’s gates opened, lines already had formed. Most of those waiting wore Red Sox paraphernalia. Waiting with them were Japanese reporters, taking shots and interviewing fans.
Also in the crowd were Japanese fans, with Japanese-language signs, Japanese flags painted on their faces and homemade T-shirts – with Japanese slogans. As part of the uniqueness of the historic event, they became almost as photographed as Matsuzaka himself.
Two young women in particular, who were in line with us and had seats in the first row between third base and the left-field foul pole, posed for photographs throughout the game.
More famous than Matsuzaka? These girls were making a bid by game's end.
The sign reads, "Best wishes to Matsuzaka," a Japanese reporter told me.
As we entered the park, a giant mass of black-coated reporters and photographers with giant camera lenses milled in front of the Red Sox’ dugout, awaiting Matsuzaka’s jog from left field, where he was throwing warm-up tosses. All the lenses pointed in the same direction, zooming in for shots of Matsuzaka.
Another large crowd – this one made up of Red Sox fans – gathered around the left-field foul pole, just rows in front of our seats, yelling for Matsuzaka or any other member of the Sox pitching staff to give a baseball, sign an autograph or bestow some measure of acknowledgement.
Julian Tavarez shook his head when I asked for him to sign a baseball card, gesturing at the batting cage to note that he needed to catch any balls hit his way.
Julian Tavarez was nice enough with the fans,
but he still wouldn't sign my baseball card.
Later, Matsuzaka, who had been playing toss with Hideki Okajima before retreating to the dugout, returned to stretch and play long toss. His tosses at 100 feet or more were impressive – so hard and strong, the bullpen catcher had to jump to catch them.
Daisuke Matsuzaka plays some pre-start catch.
If Sox fans outnumbered Royals fans Wednesday night, they dominated on Thursday. Walking along the concourse, we saw at least two Sox hats for every Royals hat.
With the sun peeking from behind the clouds, the game-time temperature was even lower than Wednesday night, another misleading figure as it only grew warmer throughout the game.
Naturally, the Sox-heavy crowd was on its feet as Matsuzaka started the bottom of the first. Cameras were out as everyone jostled for a clear view from which to take video or stills of the occasion. The first pitch was a ball.
Matsuzaka, as we all know, struggled at first, giving up the hard single, inducing a fielder’s choice groundout and walking Mark Teahan. In the middle of the next at bat, Matsuzaka walked behind the mound and twice jumped up and down quickly, what The Associated Press termed “half jumping jacks.” The Royals fans in attendance launched a cavalcade of boos, but the action seemed to calm Matsuzaka.
From then on, he was unstoppable, inducing the double play and striking out six of the next 10 batters.
Matsuzaka’s windup is something to behold in person. It’s not so much the pauses that have been discussed at length. It’s that he winds up in slow motion, his left leg creeping up toward his stomach as his arms inch above his head, then everything moving at once to deliver the ball to the plate.
As he begins the windup, however, Matsuzaka wiggles his legs slightly, making it look as if he’s shaking his butt at the center fielder (which might be why Crisp after the game said it looked so nice).
The stands were electric, and we were surrounded by Red Sox fans. Sadly, I was in line getting the wife a pretzel during Matsuzaka’s biggest moment – when he struck out the side in the fourth inning. Echoing through the concourse, the roar of the crowd was deafening as Emil Brown went down swinging at the high heater.
Signs in Japanese abounded at Kauffman Stadium Thursday, as did strange
cries of "MATSUZAKA!!!!" by an excited Japanese fan several rows behind us.
“It was almost as if he was better to watch on TV so you could see the movement on his pitches rather than being at the ballpark,” Greinke said after the game, and he was exactly right. Not until I watched the game on the concourse TVs did I realize how well Matsuzaka was moving the ball from side to side.
Those of us who figured the seventh was Matsuzaka’s last inning gave him a standing ovation as he left the field.
As the Sox added insurance in the seventh and eighth, the Sox fans around us began to grow nervous. With a 4-1 lead, any more runs and Jonathan Papelbon would no longer be needed. As it was, he pitched and saved his first game of the year, punctuating it with the game’s 12th strikeout. Needless to say, having witnessed two Red Sox wins, we were happy.
Pitching coach John Farrell chats with Matsuzaka in left field Thursday.
Leaving the park, we knew we’d witnessed one of the best debuts by a Red Sox pitcher, let alone a Major League rookie. Later that night, ESPN reported it was among the five best debuts by a rookie in the past 30 seasons. No pitcher not named Hideo Nomo or Pedro Martinez had done so well in his Sox debut since Don Aase struck out 11 in 1977.
The following day, the Star ran the aforementioned full-page graphic, breaking down the location and outcome of each of Matsuzaka’s 108 pitches. There were no such graphics Tuesday for Gil Meche, Thursday for Odalis Perez or Friday for Zack Grienke.
Local sports radio and TV seemed in awe of the performance. The postmortems were brief. The Red Sox left town that night, we left town the next day. In the meantime, Kansas State University coach Bob Huggins announced he was leaving for West Virginia.
A new sports figure took up space at the top of the Star’s front page, and Matsuzaka Mania went away as quickly as it had come.
The wife and I before the start of Thursday's game. Notice I'm rockin' the
Soxfan T-shirt, though the cold kept me from displaying it as I'd hoped.