Matsuzaka follows national heroes’ path to global stardom

The Associated Press

Japan once lauded seasoned Kabuki actors, kimono-clad traditional dancers and aging masters of obscure ancient instruments like the 13-stringed koto as “living national treasures.”

News photo Star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who won 17 games for the Seibu Lions in 2006 after earning the World
Baseball Classic’s MVP award, now begins negotiations with the Boston Red Sox on a big-league contract.

But today the country’s baseball players enjoy such rarified status.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, arguably the best pitcher in Japan, came a step closer Wednesday to joining an elite but growing club of homegrown players who have gone to America to validate that Japan has more to offer the world than cars and electronics.

Matsuzaka’s Seibu Lions, of the Pacific League, announced earlier in the day that the Boston Red Sox bid an unprecedented $51.1 million to win exclusive negotiating rights to the 26-year-old right-hander.

“He is a treasure in Japan,” Lions acting owner Hidekazu Ota said after announcing the deal. “He has had this dream of playing in the major leagues and we hope deeply that it will come true.”

Matsuzaka follows the footsteps of such greats as Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki, who rose to stardom at home only to get lured abroad by money and the global stage. The huge sum paid by Boston just to negotiate with Matsuzaka underscores the premium demanded by top talent in Japan, where baseball dates back more than a century.

Japanese-style baseball emphasizes teamwork over power hitting, and players making it big in America are seen back home as reaffirming that Japan’s game is top class.

Teams signing Japanese players win rabid fans overnight, and national broadcaster NHK often televises, live, games featuring prominent Japanese stars.

“I think it’s done so much for Japan in terms of ego and self esteem,” said renowned baseball writer Robert Whiting. “These guys eliminated a complex Japan had.”

Yet despite the accolades showered on the quality of Japanese baseball — the national team led by Matsuzaka won the inaugural World Baseball Classic earlier this year, while the United States’ all-star studded team failed to reach the semifinals — Matsuzaka’s impending departure also highlights the problems the country has keeping its treasured big names.

For most star players, the only way up is out.