Profile: Daisuke Matsuzaka

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Daisuke Matsuzaka made his name in 1998, performing on the sacred grounds of Koshien, the Yankee Stadium of Japan, in the National High School Baseball Championship. The series is a national obsession, played in front of sell-out crowds and attracting more TV viewers every summer than any other sporting event. Families uproot themselves so their sons might play for a school with a chance of getting to Koshien; those who make it often scoop up dirt from the field as a souvenir.

It was in this pressure cooker that the teenaged Matsuzaka, playing for the Yokohama high school team, cemented, forever, his place in the annals of Japan's sports heroes. A skinny lad with the face of an angel and the arm of a demon, Matsuzaka kept a nation enthralled throughout the tournament. The quarterfinal game went 17 innings: Matsuzaka pitched them all, hurling 250 pitches. In the semi-finals the next day, he played in the outfield, his right pitching arm wrapped in a thick layer of bandages. He took the mound in the final inning to save the game. The next day, in the championship, he pitched a no-hitter: nine innings without giving up a single hit, a feat roughly comparable to a golfing hole-in-one. "Nobody will ever forget what Daisuke did," says baseball writer Keizo Konishi. "It was an unbelievable three days."

Japan's baseball team will need three days, or more, of Matsuzaka's magic on the mound if it is to have any chance of winning an Olympic medal in Sydney. Silver medalist to Cuba's gold in Atlanta in 1996, the Japanese team will include Matsuzaka and seven other big leaguers in these first Olympics where baseball professionals are allowed. At 19, the fastballer is now the top draw of the Seibu Lions in Japan's Pacific League. When he pitches, the 35,000-seat stadium in suburban Tokorozawa tends to fill up. Other nights, the stands are often half-empty. Matsuzaka's Lions are in a heated pennant race in a season that won't end until after the Sydney Games. Releasing him to the Olympic squad would be like the St. Louis Cardinals in the U.S. major leagues going without slugger Mark McGwire in the crucial last days of the season. But the Lions' owner, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, is a big Olympics booster and was the main force behind the Nagano Winter Games of 1998. "He's the emperor around here, and Daisuke is like the emperor's son," says a team official. Goodbye pennant race, hello Sydney. The emperor has decreed it.

The public reveres Matsuzaka as royalty. His round baby face makes older women want to mother him. His swagger makes younger women want to marry him. Older men like his work ethic. Younger ones admire him for dyeing his hair a coppery red. "He says brave things, like how he will strike out batters, but then he backs it up," says 21-year-old fan Junko Kushima. "That's exciting." At the start of his first pro season in 1999, Matsuzaka predicted with un-Japanese bravado that he would be rookie of the year at season's end. He was.

His face is everywhere, endorsing electronic appliances, soft drinks and an airline. When the team travels the league circuit, squealing fans swarm around him. "I've never seen anything like it," says American teammate Reggie Jefferson. "He's like a rock star." Around the Lions clubhouse, there is even some grumbling that Matsuzaka is being spoiled. Last year, when the other Lions players were in fall training camp, Matsuzaka was treated to a trip to the American World Series in New York City. "I think the team is in danger of ruining him with all this special treatment," says a team official who asks not to be named.

That kind of talk could just be envy of the boy's talents. Just how good is he? Matsuzaka himself thinks he can make it big in the U.S. major leagues. (He'll have to wait seven more years to become a free agent under Japan's contract system.) "I'd like to try," he said recently. He certainly has the statistics to interest American scouts. At 1.78 m and 78 kg, Matsuzaka has a mean fastball, clocked as high as 156 km/h, which he mixes with his other pitches: a slider, a change-up and a curve. He went straight from high school to the pros, a rarity in Japan, and in his initial season he won 16 games. This year, he has 12 wins—the most victories in the Pacific League—and only five losses, though he has struggled with his control. "I tinkered with my form early in the season," he says. "But it's O.K. now." He has a big wind-up—holding the ball a full three seconds above his head—and a big kick. "He's the real thing," says Tuffy Rhodes, an ex-major leaguer now playing in Japan for the professional Kintetsu Buffaloes. "He could win 10 or 12 games a year now in the majors." Says teammate Jefferson: "He's a phenom, one of those rare guys who can dominate and win a game on his own."

The big question with Matsuzaka is whether he'll endure. Baseball managers are notorious in Japan for overworking their pitchers, and the list of hurlers whose careers were cut short by blown-out arms is long. In the U.S., a starting pitcher typically throws between 100 and 140 pitches a game. In Japan, 200-pitch games are not unheard of. The wear-and-tear on Matsuzaka's arm from his torrid schedule as a high-schooler might well come back to haunt him. "I worry about his future because he throws a lot compared to American pitchers and even other Japanese pitchers," says Isao Ojimi, a former pro player in Japan who now scouts talent for the New York Mets. "Managers in Japan aren't worried about their players' futures, they only care about winning today. This year, Matsuzaka looks tired. He needs rest."

He won't get rest any time soon. In Sydney, Cuba and South Korea are the favorites, but pressure is on Japan to produce a medal in what has become the country's national sport. The young ace is expected to start in preliminary-round games against the U.S. and South Korea. If Japan's Olympic squad battles itself into contention, the temptation will be to pitch Matsuzaka as often as possible. After all, the whole country remembers his performance at Koshien, and nothing would excite fans more than an encore.