Has Japan Become America's Farm Team? (In Baseball, That Is)

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India's Prime Minister was in Tokyo Thursday for a historic summit, and although he was accorded the rare honor of addressing Japan's legislature, he couldn't make the front-page lead of the country's national newspapers. That territory belonged to Daisuke Matsuzaka, a 26-year-old pitcher whose six-year, $52 million contract with the Boston Red Sox (plus another $51 million Boston paid to Matsuzaka's old team, the Seibu Lions, just for the right to negotiate with him) is the most lucrative deal ever for a player coming out of Japan. That may be a fitting tribute to the All-Star Matsuzaka, who goes by the nickname Kaibutsu (Monster), and whose fan base extends well beyond his own team. As Seibu president Hidekazu Ota put it: "Matsuzaka is not only the Lions' treasure, but also a treasure for all of Japan's fans."

Matsuzaka burst into national prominence as a teenager in the 1998 Japanese high school baseball championship. The single-elimination Koshien tournament, as it's called, captivates the country every summer — to call it Japan's March Madness would be an understatement. Matsuzaka single-handedly led Yokohama High to the title, pitching much of the tournament and tossing a no-hitter in the championship game. As a pro with the Lions, Matsuzaka continued to dominate from the mound, winning a title and leading his country to the inaugural World Baseball Championship (WBC) last spring.

And it's not only his pitching prowess that has earned his beloved status: While most Japanese players show all the flair of dour salarymen, Matsuzaka — with his spiky, sometimes dyed hair and cool self-confidence — more closely resembles the dropout hipsters who populated downbeat Tokyo at the turn of the millennium. But his 95-mph fastball and old-school work ethic and competitiveness have earned him the loyalty of traditional fans.

That Matsuzaka would eventually follow the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui to the U.S. Major Leagues was inevitable, and Japan is proud of his success, if a bit worried that expectations in Boston might be running too high. (Japanese fans may be a little fuzzy on Beantown's traditions, though. Toshiyuki Nagao, a lifelong fan, expressed concern that "there are many academic and white-collar people in Boston, who might not appreciate baseball's earthy passion." Nagao-san, you'll find plenty of earthy passion in the Fenway bleachers.) But some guardians of the Japanese game fear that Matsuzaka's departure means that the 86-year-old Japanese pro leagues have become little more than a offshore farm system for the U.S. "We'll lose our best," Katsuya Nomura, manager of the Rakuten Eagles, told the Mainichi Shimbun last month. "It means the decline of Japanese professional baseball."

Most Japanese fans, however, are celebrating Matsuzaka's signing as further proof that Japan's best players can compete on baseball's premier stage. Japanese players who move to the majors are no longer seen as leaving Japan behind; they are seen as representing their country in the international game. It's a sign that the globalization of sport is finally penetrating this often isolationist country, that many fans here would rather watch an international game with the top players in the world than settle for a lessened domestic product. As one Japanese baseball blog put it: "Finally, all the dream matches will come true in 2007. Matsuzaka vs. Godzilla Matsui, Matsuzaka vs. Genius Ichiro, Matsuzaka vs. Igawa! I wish the MLB 2007 season would start soon." He's not the only one.

— With reporting by Yuki Oda/Tokyo