Fenway faithful await Dice-K's debut
Red Sox Nation buzzing a day before Matsuzaka's start
BOSTON -- There is, of course, no better place for Old World and New Age to intersect. In this city, the cobblestones reek history. In this ballpark, the grass breathes tradition.Most other places, it's just Opening Day. Here, it's Reaffirmation Day. New England looks ahead to the next seven months and reflects on the past decades, sons joined by blood to fathers, all joined by DNA to the Red Sox. Old and new. Eighty-seven-year-old icons trot across the field below, and F-15s streak across the sky above. Jose Guillen and Brendan Donnelly pick old wounds, and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki find themselves in the crosshairs of new rivalries. A shiny black ride turns off Yawkey Way into Van Ness Street and Jason Varitek climbs out. Mere feet away, a windbreaker-clad youngster glides among the pillars holding up the 95-year-old ballpark and yells to no one in particular but jubilantly, "Baseball's back, baby!" But this Opening Day was distinguished by another cry, felt more than heard, but no less tangible: "Turn the page, already!" Could have been, maybe should have been, meant for Donnelly and Guillen, whose relapse to their own history underscored a strange day of anticlimaxes and precursors. Instead, the plea referred to Day Two, the looming main attraction behind even Tuesday's festivities, especially once Boston built a 7-0 lead after two, because Matsuzaka will at last be sworn into Red Sox Nation. What's more, at the top of the Seattle Mariners' reception line will be Ichiro. This could be the most eagerly awaited stateside meeting of two foreign dignitaries since Sadat and Begin gathered at Camp David. Ichiro and Dice-K are old teammates, even older rivals, meeting on new turf. It is a major occasion, the magnitude of which perhaps not even the participants, unable to step outside of their skins, can assess. For instance, asked how big their run-ins will be in Japan, Ichiro said, "Please ask someone in Japan. I'm in America now." Trust Boston media relations vice president John Blake's pass list: It's huge. Japanese reps will comprise about half of Wednesday's postseason-sized media mob of 350. "I just hope it's not 400," Ichiro said, grinning. And it's not easy to upstage a Fenway Park opening, which typically includes everything except a reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill -- although, Donnelly and Guillen gave that a try on Tuesday. "It's awesome. Definitely a great, unbelievable experience," second baseman Dustin Pedroia, one of four in Boston's starting lineup experiencing his first Fens opener, said shortly before the curtain rose. "I can't wait to see it. "The Royals and Rangers did a good job," added Pedroia, citing teams which had hosted the Sox in their home openers, "but everybody kept telling me, 'Wait till you see Fenway.'" The sights -- members of the '67 Red Sox taking the field from a center-field gate in their yellowed uniforms -- and sounds -- Robert Goulet's signature "The Impossible Dream" -- didn't disappoint. Harry Connick Jr. warbled. A humongous flag, wide enough to cover the entirety of The Green Monster, rolled down from the Monster Seats. Those '67 Sox wound up for 20 simultaneous first pitches to '07 Sox. The color. The pageantry. The tributes and memorials. The 17 runs and 18 hits. And, yet, it all felt like preliminaries. Like a warm-up act (something that certainly sounds appealing to this part of the country). A prelude to more history, in a neighborhood that has certainly seen plenty of it.
Ichiro and Dice-K are not alone. Both have countryman teammates -- Seattle catcher Kenji Johjima and Boston reliever Hideki Okajima -- as the Japanese impact on Major League Baseball continues to spiral.The Red Sox pair is expected to have a profound effect on a region with only a minimal prior Japanese influence -- a reason, of course, the Dice-K phenomenon crosses foul lines. Boston's estimated Japanese population is a mere 5,000, but Matsuzaka makes the city a magnet for tourists -- as Hideki Matsui has enhanced New York as a destination for Japanese travelers. Nor is Dice-K vs. Ichiro the only Wednesday night intrigue. Before a string of snow-outs tossed the Mariners' rotation, Matsuzaka was set to face Miguel Batista. Now he draws Felix Hernandez, whose own Opening Night performance (12 strikeouts in eight shutout innings against Oakland) may have been the young season's only one more impressive than Dice-K's debut in Kansas City. Add it all up, and cue Ethel Merman ... "Another Opening Night, Another Show ..." When Suzuki steps in to face Dice-K at 7:05 p.m. ET -- 8:05 a.m. Thursday Japan time -- they will not set big-league precedents. Ichiro himself went 3-for-7 in 2001 against another former Japanese ace and Boston right-hander, Hideo Nomo, and through the recent years the growing numbers of Japanese pitchers and hurlers who brought their games to the Majors have criss-crossed. However, they will set new heights for hysteria. It was already in full swing Tuesday, when even an Opening Day just seemed to be obstruction. For Matsuzaka, the event will be seminal, on many levels. Although he acquired his "visa" to Red Sox Nation when signed four months ago, he has spent only three days in the "country." He visited for his introductory media conference in December, and came here Sunday night in anticipation of his home debut. There is the historic yard ... "Many great pitchers have performed at Fenway Park. When I stand there, special emotions may come to me. This game means a lot more to me personally (then his debut in Kansas City). I think that [Fenway] is a sacred place." And the reunion with Ichiro ... "Ever since he left Japan to go to the Majors, he is someone I've wanted to face again." Understandable: During 1999 and 2000, the only two seasons both were in the Japanese League, Matsuzaka held Ichiro to a .235 average, and only two extra base hits in 34 at-bats. Dice-K is in the midst of making his first three starts (the Angels will follow) against teams which trained in Arizona and haven't yet had a first-hand look at him. That could be a considerable boost to getting him off to a good stat, judging by his Ichiro history. The first time the two met, on May 16, 1999, Matsuzaka struck out the established All-Star three times, but could ring him up only once more in 31 subsequent at-bats. A more recent Matsuzaka foe is Johjima, who did not make his own way to Seattle until last season. Johjima has some simple advice to his Mariners teammates: "I would first tell them to pray." Hopefully, they won't pray for snow. They've proven to be too good at that.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.