Sox-Yanks takes on new dimension
Matsuzaka's acquisition creates Japanese connection
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A swarm of photographers gathered behind home plate more than a half hour before the Red Sox's exhibition game against the Yankees on Monday with a purpose that had nothing to do with chronicling Tim Wakefield's first pitch.
Instead, they were there to officially commemorate the fact that Red Sox-Yankees, the age-old rivalry between two passionate baseball cities, has now gone international.
In case you missed it, the Red Sox invested $103.1 million during the offseason to acquire Japanese pitching sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka. With Hideki Matsui -- the hitting equivalent of Matsuzaka to Japanese followers -- entering his fifth season with the Yankees, you can be sure yet another dimension has been added to this multi-layered rivalry.
So the cameras all got in position for the scheduled 6:45 p.m. ET meeting between Matsuzaka and Matsui. Boston lefty Hideki Okajima, another rookie from Japan and a former teammate of Matsui's with the Yomiuri Giants, accompanied Matsuzaka to the reunion.
There were several bows and some handshakes between the three players, not to mention several hundred camera clicks.
"I think it's great," said Wakefield. "Those guys know each other from Japan and now they're all playing in the United States for two of the biggest franchises in baseball. It's pretty exciting."
With Matsui already established as a Major League star and being six years Matsuzaka's elder, the Boston right-hander paid the proper form of respect.
According to a translator, Matsuzaka said to Matsui, "I'm sorry to bother you right before your game. [Matsui] said, 'Don't worry about it, thanks for coming over to say hello.' He wished me good luck, so I wished him the same and said thanks."
Things were more personal between former teammates Okajima and Matsui.
"Long time no see," Okajima told Matsui. "He said to me, 'How have you been?' I was really excited to see him. I wish we had more time to talk. He told me he'd give me his number later and would see me during the season. I'm looking forward to meeting him again soon and having dinner with him."
Meet and greets aside, it should be quite the atmosphere in April, when Matsuzaka and Matsui will likely have their first pitcher-hitter confrontation since the 2001 Japan Series.
"The international flavor, sure, but it's still the rivalry," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Wherever the players come from, they put on those uniforms and you very rarely look at the [nationality], you look at the uniform. You don't know anything else. Everybody has a face, but the uniform is what really stirs people up."
The passion that Torre hit on, that is perhaps the most common denominator between Japanese baseball fans, and those of the Red Sox and Yankees.
Consider that there were roughly 180 media members on hand to cover a game that meant precious little -- to be generous -- in the grand scheme of a baseball season. For what it's worth, the Red Sox won by a score of 7-5.
"I think this game is way over-hyped," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "They're not bringing over their regulars, our regulars are only playing six innings. But it's exciting, there's a better energy in the air."
There always is when the Red sox and Yankees do battle. How else could you explain a phenomenon in which a large gathering of fans were scattered down Edison Avenue some three hours before the first pitch in hopes of landing standing room tickets?
"I think it's hard to believe," said Torre. "How's that one? I'll just stay with hard to believe. Obviously, we love to win, but to me it's Spring Training and getting people in shape is the most important thing, and getting the work that they need. But again, the attention, the fans crave it. That's good enough for us. It really doesn't matter what we think. It's all about how important they feel it is."
Matsui is entrenched in the rivalry by now. His crucial double against Pedro Martinez during the epic comeback in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series was his official initiation. Matsuzaka is sure to have many rivalry moments with the teams meeting 18 times this season, and perhaps more during that crucial month of October.
"I am sure that Red Sox-Yankees will give him a unique atmosphere," Matsui said. "When the time comes, he will experience that and enjoy it for himself."
Does Matsui enjoy the rivalry?
"I don't know if enjoy it is the right term," Matsui said. "It certainly is a unique stage upon which to perform."
For those who are wondering, Matsui went 0-for-3 against Matsuzaka in the 2001 Japan Series. However, it was Matsui's Giants sweeping Matsuzaka's Seibu Lions in four straight. Matsui did take Matsuzaka deep in a 1999 All-Star Game.
Torre has never seen Matsuzaka pitch live, but he has a pretty decent idea of the kind of impact the talent right-hander will have on the team his is always measured against.
"Obviously he's very special," said Torre. "You don't command that type of attention unless you've got some special tools. He seems to have a great deal of confidence. The things I've heard, obviously he's handled all the attention here with ease. And a lot like Matsui. Matsui, he was highly followed by people all over the place. He was oblivious to it."
As for the other aspects of the rivalry, both teams did their usual winter shopping, though this time it was the Red Sox spending more money. While the Sox brought in Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, the most high-profile addition made by the Yankees was the re-acquisition of Andy Pettitte.
No longer in possession of Gary Sheffield's big bat, the Yankees still pack plenty of wallop.
"Well, Bobby Abreu is pretty good," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I would love to say they're not as good because Sheff isn't there. You know how I feel about Sheff as a hitter. But Bobby Abreu, his on-base [skills], he wears you down ... he's good. I don't think they're too worried about their lineup."
Neither are the Red Sox, who still have those renowned boppers in the middle in David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. But while the Yankees have a future Hall of Famer named Mariano Rivera performing last call, the Red Sox are trying to sort it out by the end of camp.
"It's a huge question mark. You play in that ballpark, no lead is safe in that ballpark," said Torre. "Where in other ballparks, three runs is save, five or six should be a save in that ballpark. Leads disappear very quickly. That kid, what a job he did. [Jonathan] Papelbon did a spectacular job, he was intimidating."
But Papelbon hasn't gone away, he's just shifted roles, where his addition to the starting rotation could give Boston an edge in that area over the Yankees.
Not that Francona was in the mood to do an analysis breakdown.
"I don't need to rate their team in Spring Training," Francona said.
Ratings officially come out in October, by which time the rivalry will have made a memorable mark on Boston, New York and Japan.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.