With star pitcher in the States, Japan doesn't feel benched

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Boston's gain is Japan's loss – right? If pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is the new star in the Red Sox firmament, the sky over Japanese baseball must be a little darker.

Not at all, to hear Japanese baseball fans from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on down tell it. As far as they are concerned, Mr. Matsuzaka will simply be reflecting Major League glory on his homeland's game.

"As a Japanese I am happy to see Japanese players doing well in the States," says Takahiro Negishi, an insurance executive, as he pauses between cellphone calls outside a central Tokyo subway station on Friday.

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"I expect American fans will realize how good Japanese baseball is when they see Matsuzaka play well," he adds.

That is not just the salaryman view, either. Japan's premier weighed in with almost exactly the same sentiments when he heard the news that the Red Sox had signed Matsuzaka on Dec. 14 to a six-year contract for $52 million. He also opined on the price – a record for a Japanese player – commenting that, "I think his ability was correctly assessed."

Fumuki Nagata, a middle-aged businessman enjoying the late autumn sunshine that bathed Tokyo on Friday, was less sure. "The sum is astronomical" he says. (Boston also paid Matsuzaka's team, the Seibu Lions, $51.1 million for the right to negotiate a deal with the player.) "The Americans put a very different value on money than we do."

It is the 26-year-old pitcher's ability to command a multimillion dollar salary that seems to catch his own generation's attention the most. Reactions to the news of Matsuzaka's signing from 20-somethings interviewed at random outside Shimbashi subway station ranged from "He's very lucky, he's very rich" to "I envy him that much money" to "I'm proud of him as a Japanese that he can earn that much money in America."

The Seibu Lions don't appear to hold any grudge against their former star for deserting them. "I'm happy that his dream has come true. I hope he will be successful in the US" said club President Hidekazu Ota graciously.

Mr. Ota, of course, is laughing all the way to the bank. He has told fans that they will have to wait until the new year to hear exactly what the club plans to do with its windfall, but team officials are talking about beefing up the Lions with new players and renovating the ballpark. A brand-new field of artificial turf is apparently top of the club's priorities.

Seibu Lions fans may be sorry to see Matsuzaka go, but the chances are they will simply add the Red Sox to their loyalties, as will a great many Japanese baseball fans.

If they are really keen, they can go and watch him play in person: Tokyo travel agents have announced plans to arrange special trips to Boston to take in Fenway Park on game days.

Everyone else will have to make do with NHK, the state TV broadcaster, which tries to air all US Major League games involving Japanese stars such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. From now on, the broadcaster will certainly be carrying Red Sox games.

And even the uncommitted will be watching. Hiroshi Masuda, a leather-jacketed 26-year-old clothes salesman with a shock of spiky hair , said he prefers soccer to baseball, like many of his generation.

But the new Red Sox star tempts him back to the sport of his elders. "To watch Matsuzaka pitch in the major leagues," he says, "I'll stay up till midnight."

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