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Japanese pitcher draws attention

AP photoBoston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka throws during a team practice prior to a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees in Fort Myers, Fla., Monday.
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FORT MYERS, Fla. ” Fans flock for his autograph. Cameras record his simplest moves. Batters look for his mysterious “gyroball” ” if it even exists. He’s just one of hundreds of rookies at baseball spring training camps this year, but he’s swooned over like a rock star.

Matsuzaka Mania slammed into spring training at full force and hasn’t let up.

“He’s got a whole different gig going,” Red Sox ace Curt Schilling said.

Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka ” with the catchy “Dice-K” nickname that’s made for the spotlight ” has turned small stadiums from one Florida coast to the other into meccas for the media.

“I never had a player generate this interest,” said Boston’s vice president of media relations, John Blake, who did the same job for the Texas Rangers when they had Alex Rodriguez and Nolan Ryan.

At one road game where Matsuzaka pitched, reporters had to sit on folding chairs in foul territory because the press box was too small. For his next start Friday at the Los Angeles Dodgers, a signup sheet for traveling media was posted Monday night. Within a half-hour, it had 50 names on it, 45 from Japanese outlets.

Even fans have trouble getting into Matsuzaka’s games.

“We were hoping he wouldn’t pitch so we’d have a better chance of getting tickets,” said Jeanni Trout of Orlando as she waited in a box office line last Sunday with her husband and three sons.

She was third in line when a sign went up on the ticket window: “Today’s game is SOLD OUT!”

Manager Terry Francona sees it all ” Matsuzaka’s outstanding pitching, the hour he spends signing autographs, the respectful rapport he’s developed with teammates ” and says simply, “He’s got IT.”

And everyone seems to want a piece of it.

On Feb. 12 at Tampa International Airport, 17 photographers and 10 TV cameramen ” nearly all from Japanese outlets and some waiting three hours ” covered Matsuzaka’s arrival in Florida. Last Sunday, his game was televised before dawn in Japan.

When a team invests more than $103 million in a pitcher ” huge money even in a sport that showers riches on run-of-the-mill players ” people notice. Especially if that pitcher has been a star since high school in another baseball-crazy country.

Matsuzaka pitched Yokohama High to the national championship in 1998 with a no-hitter in the final game.

The next season, he was rookie of the year in Japan’s Pacific League. After eight years with the Seibu Lions and last year’s World Baseball Classic in which he was MVP, he became a free agent.

Boston bid $51.11 million just for the right to negotiate with him. Then, after talks went down to the wire, he agreed on a $52 million, six-year contract.

Tourism officials have seen just a “sprinkling” of Japanese visitors, although two from Tokyo came specifically to see Matsuzaka pitch, said Nancy Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The bureau printed materials in Japanese, and she expects their numbers to grow next year.

Matsuzaka has six outstanding pitches and, perhaps, a “gyroball” that adds to his allure. It is baseball’s version of the Loch Ness Monster ” it may or may not exist ” but just the thought of it can be scary.

“The pitch that he throws that some might think is that pitch is his change-up,” pitching coach John Farell said. “He turns the ball over so it has some screwball action to it, but I think the gyroball is still somewhat of a legend.”

Matsuzaka is very coy about it.

Asked if two homers he allowed in Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles came on gyroballs, Matsuzaka thought, grinned and replied through an interpreter, “Ask the batters.”

About a month earlier, nine TV satellite trucks were parked in front of City of Palms Park where the Red Sox play ” blocking the view of a Ted Williams statue ” when the 26-year-old right-hander held his first formal news conference in Florida.

“The first year when I played professionally in Japan, the first spring training, many members of the media showed up,” he said. “So I’m not surprised.”

And, he said, “I honestly apologize” if teammates become disturbed by the media crush.

“There’s 200 (media) people here just for him,” Schilling said, “and he gives off the impression that he doesn’t want to be an inconvenience to other people.”

With so much focus on Matsuzaka, players who could be in the spotlight are overshadowed.

Schilling’s request for a contract extension was rejected. Quirky left fielder Manny Ramirez reported late to camp. Dominant closer Jonathan Papelbon became a starter. Monday night’s visit of the New York Yankees in their over-hyped rivalry with the Red Sox also took a backseat.

“Guys are kind of flying under the radar, which is OK,” Francona said. “I also think the way Dice-K has handled it has also made it easier. He’s endeared himself to his teammates. He’s handled his responsibilities, which go way above and beyond the call of duty, and it doesn’t seem like it irritates him. He’s got a smile for everybody.”

Before Monday’s game, Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui posed with Matsuzaka and another Red Sox pitcher from Japan, Hideki Okajima, near home plate. They bowed repeatedly with at least 30 cameras capturing the event.

“I couldn’t see it,” Francona said. “There were too many people in the way.”

Players aren’t shocked by all that attention for one player.

“I understand the hype,” Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts said after going hitless against Matsuzaka on Sunday. “Anytime you have somebody that’s as big as he is, from what I hear, in Japan, it’s going to be a big deal.”

Francona takes it in stride but sometimes shakes his head in amazement. He was in a similar situation in 1994 when he managed a pro basketball player who wanted to try baseball in the Chicago White Sox minor league system.

“Remember, I had Michael Jordan, and this guy can’t dunk,” he said of Matsuzaka.

Besides, Francona has bigger concerns ” leading a championship contender with a charismatic pitcher who changed spring training from a low-key exercise in a small Florida city to the talk of two continents.

“It’s not like I’m trying to get his autograph or anything,” he said. “I just want him to get outs.”


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