Time to roll the Dice-K
Matsuzaka ready to take center stage in his big-league debut
KANSAS CITY -- The big gyroball has begun its descent down the tower overlooking New Times Square. When it reaches the bottom Thursday at about 2:20 p.m. ET -- give or take a few minutes, depending on how long the Red Sox hitters take to get out of the way in the top of the first -- fireworks (or are those camera flashes?) will signal not only a New Year.Try, a New Age, baseball-wise. Man, this Daisuke Matsuzaka dude sure sneaks up on you. Everyone is preoccupied with goings on around the Majors, not paying any attention to 26-year-old right-handers from Japan, and next thing you know -- bam! -- he's already going to the mound in a real game. That's a joke, folks. For four months, ball fans on two continents have been on a Dice-K diet, fed by fascinating media dispatches from all corners of ... does Florida even have corners? But it's been all-Dice-K, all-the-time. He's starred in a sequel to "The Truman Show." And, at last, the curtain parts Thursday afternoon and we'll get it all in Kauffman Stadium: The throwback windup, the pause, the eclectic repertoire, chattering teeth. Forecast game-time temperature: 41 degrees, off a record overnight low of 28. The Ice-K Cometh. And an eager Red Sox Nation turns its longing eyes to you ... John Henry understands that last bit, and he has found it fascinating. The Red Sox's primary owner told The Boston Globe in a recent e-mailed interview that Matsuzaka's signing "has seemed to uplift our entire region. It is remarkable and a great thing." Thursday's unveiling will be attended by about 20,000, remarkable for Midwestern, midweek, school-and-frost-in-session standards. Last April 5, for their first post-Opening Day afternoon game, the Royals drew 11,265 fans. Matsuzaka's audience will also include an international media horde of 150-plus, the largest in the picturesque ballpark formerly called Royals Stadium since the 1985 World Series. Then it will be on to Arlington, Texas, for the Boston press corps, soon to be known as the Box Lunch Brigade. Boxed roast beef and turkey sandwiches this week replaced the aroma of cooked food wafting from the media kitchen here. A club official explained, "I only have a hundred place settings. I can't have people washing dishes all night. These Boston writers better get used to box lunches. They're going to get a lot of that." Not sure about the writers, but Matsuzaka is expected to eat it up. He embraces the stage and the opportunity to command it. The 127 Japanese media reps certainly didn't come here to commemorate Hideo Nomo's no-hitter for the Red Sox. Yep, for you karma fans, the sixth anniversary of Nomo's no-hitter over Baltimore was Wednesday, on the eve of Dice-K's first start. "Is that right?" Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said, his eyes growing large. "I sure do remember that." All things considered, it's probably better to have Dice-K in this region of the country than a pitcher whose nickname is Tornado.
Matsuzaka's debut mutes the drum roll for what, under normal circumstances, would be a very momentous afternoon for his mound opponent, too. Zack Greinke, after all, will be making his first start since 2005 and a trial separation from baseball because he'd grown to hate the game.The baseball muse did the matchmaking here: A young man returning to a lost love, against a slightly older one giving fans another reason to fall in love with the game all over again. Greinke, a likeable 23-year-old, was asked whether he finds the daily media crush on Matsuzaka amazing. "What is amazing," Greinke said, "is that every question revolves around him." "What excites me is the chance to win and give us the series, not spoiling his day," Greinke added. "It's still just a regular-season game. Except, it could be tougher to win. ... He's supposed to be a pretty good pitcher." Mark Teahen, who will actually have to bat against Matsuzaka, called him "just another pitcher." Overwhelmed by distant hype, the Royals clearly are not. Before Matsuzaka Mania came to their doorstep, the Royals were a couple thousand miles from it, in the Arizona Cactus League. But curious, certainly. If anything, the separation has made them more eager for first-hand looks at the pitcher and his arsenal, particularly that ethereal gyroball. This is a diamond shell game. Matsuzaka isn't saying what it is, how he grips it, or even flatly that he has it. But people are convinced they can find it, some that they already have. Following Matsuzaka's first exhibition turn, onetime Florida infielder Jason Stokes told the Palm Beach Post, "I saw the gyroball." Stokes may also think UFOs are hidden in Area 51. And the Orioles' Melvin Mora would add that Matsuzaka arrived in one of them. "He is not from this planet," Mora said after being fanned twice by him in an exhibition game. "He's coming from somewhere else." The evidence, though limited, is that the gyroball, used by Matsuzaka as one of his changeups, is essentially a passé pitch, the screwball. Screwballs, which veer in the direction opposite of curves, were historically a key weapon for left-handed pitchers (Mike Cuellar, Fernando Valenzuela, Tug McGraw) against right-handed hitters. It no longer matters what Matsuzaka throws, but what he does with it. The theories, opinions, even expectations are about to dissolve. Just the way Matsuzaka wants it. His manager has sensed that extra, special dimension. "You know, there's guys like Michael Jordan, Pete Rose -- they get it," Terry Francona noted recently. "I think he gets it, too. I think he enjoys being on the field and I think he enjoys being in the spotlight. I think it helps him rise to the occasion." He isn't Jordan. He isn't Charlie Hustle. Don't confuse him with Dr. K (Dwight Gooden, whose own celebrated debut with the Mets came 23 years ago). Starting Thursday, the 12 Billion Yen Man isn't even Dice-Knox (spinning off agent Scott Boras' Fort Knox analogy). Time to get bottom-line, to see it between the lines. Time for the Red Sox to roll the Dice-K.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.