Turning Japanese

Boston markets itself to Far Eastern fans
By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 31, 2007

READY OR NOT, HERE THEY COME: Daisuke Matsuzaka is expected to attract thousands of Japanese tourists to the Hub.
On what will probably be a chilly day a little more than two months from now, Red Sox fans will be waiting for Daisuke Matsuzaka to bring the heat. Depending how the rotation pans out, Boston’s newest starter could be towing the rubber in the middle of Fenway Park as Ichiro Suzuki, the leadoff hitter for the Seattle Mariners, digs in for the first at-bat of the Red Sox’ first home game. Japan’s best pitcher versus Japan’s best hitter. With the dramatic flourish that’s been the Red Sox’ cachet over the past couple of years, the team will consummate its expensive and exhaustively hyped Far Eastern foray. It will mark the beginning of a new era that many hope will mean big things — and big money — for the Sox, and for the city they call home.

Fenway’s beery throngs will surely be swept up by the drama. And Nippon Professional Baseball fanatics across the world in Seibu and Yokohama will be beside themselves as “The Monster” unfurls himself, lets one fly, and (hopefully) notches his first strikeout with a knee-buckling shuuto.

But Japanese fans won’t just be cheering from abroad. Ever since Daisuke’s poorly translated news conference on December 14, they’ve been coming to the Hub. Groups of four and five, bundled against the cold in stylish outerwear; strolling the detritus-strewn sidewalks along the empty ballpark and the aisles of the souvenir store across the street; posing for photos under the wide-grinning face on the massive billboard on Brookline Avenue: WELCOME TO BOSTON .

Boston does indeed welcome “Pitcher Matsuzaka Daisuke” (as it’s properly phrased). And it welcomes the hordes of avid Japanese baseball fans who will want to follow him. That said, getting them here, and keeping them coming, poses real challenges that will dog even the most seasoned tourist-industry and PR pros, however confident they are that millions upon millions of Yen will soon be clinking into Boston’s coffers.

Land of the rising son
“Baseball has been in Japan for so long that it’s not really associated with America anymore,” says Sarah Frederick, assistant professor of Japanese at Boston University. Introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, a Maine-born professor at Tokyo University, it’s become a near religion in Japan, a multi-billion-dollar industry. Says Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston: “It’s been adapted in many ways, and many people consider it as Japanese a sport as any other. It’s a team sport, which works very well with Japan’s social dynamic.”

That said, Japan has its superstars, and ever since a scintillating performance in 1998’s Koshien high school tournament — “the single most important sporting event in Japan,” says Grilli — Matsuzaka has been a goliath. He’s as legendary there, it’s said, as Michael Jordan is here. “They’re like the rock stars and Hollywood stars we have in our culture; it’s baseball in their culture,” says Patrick Moscaritolo, an Eastie kid who grew up playing ball with the late, great Tony Conigliaro and is now president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The Japanese are such great fans.”

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Much has been made of the fact that Daisuke Matsuzaka has never thrown a pitch in the American major leagues. But a quick look at the 26-year-old’s résumé leaves little doubt why the Red Sox were willing to pay $51 million for the right to negotiate with him and $52 million to sign him to a six-year contract.

*A 108-60 record, 2.95 ERA, and 1355 strikeouts in eight seasons with the Seibu Lions.
*A bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
*Named Most Valuable Player of the 2005 World Baseball Classic (3-0, 1.38 ERA)
Fun Fact: In Japan, anyone born between April 2, 1980, and April 1, 1981, is known as part of the “Matsuzaka Generation.”

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