Dice-K Mania Resurfaces in Japan

TOKYO (AP) -- Terry Francona knows how Daisuke Matsuzaka must be feeling when thousands of fans go wild for him in his native land.

Well, sort of.

The Red Sox manager is, after all, the pride of New Brighton, Pa. When he goes back there for a banquet, the crowd goes wild.

"I know how I feel," Francona said. "It's 6,000 people and you're returning home (to) people that you went to high school with. It's a big deal. Well, he's coming back to a country."

Nowhere is Matsuzaka more likely to sense his popularity in Japan after his first season away from his homeland than in Tokyo Dome on Tuesday. He is scheduled to pitch against Oakland in the first game of the major league season in a stadium where he made his impressive pro debut nine years earlier.

"I've heard stories about how loud it gets in this place," Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz said. "I'm looking forward to it."

First baseman Kevin Youkilis had a simpler description: "Dice-K Mania."

Matsuzaka is a big reason major league baseball insisted on Boston making the trip. He was brilliant in eight seasons with Seibu, then signed a $52 million contract with the Red Sox after they bid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate with him.

He had a successful first season in a strange country - 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and a win in Game 3 of the World Series sweep over Colorado.

On Friday, he sat at a table with the logos of nine corporate sponsors on the backdrop and the championship trophy on a podium to his left. It was the first news conference of Major League Baseball's third season-opening trip to Japan.

The Red Sox, who also have Japanese reliever Hideki Okajima, and Athletics had exhibition games against Japanese teams scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. They'll meet each other Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the first two games of the season. In the first game, Matsuzaka faces Joe Blanton. In the second, Jon Lester goes against Rich Harden.

"After I went to the U.S. I thought that perhaps one day I'd have the opportunity to pitch a game here in Japan, but I certainly didn't expect it to happen here in the second year," Matsuzaka said through a translator.

"When we found out that we most likely would be coming to Japan part way through last season, at that point I very strongly felt that I'd like to come back here as a World Series champion."

While he is the big draw - Oakland has no Japanese-born players - the Athletics let it be known that there are two major league teams visiting this baseball-mad nation.

"They are just peers of ours," Oakland closer Huston Street said. "We're definitely not intimidated. We came over here and we expect to win. To have the World Series champions here is nice for the series, but we want to win."

Oakland almost made it to Japan five years ago. A scheduled 2003 series between the A's and the Seattle Mariners at Tokyo Dome was canceled because of the threat of war in Iraq.

"I'm excited to get another opportunity," second baseman Mark Ellis said.

There was a chance Matsuzaka wouldn't make it because his wife was pregnant in Boston. But she gave birth to a son, their second child, last Saturday and he left from Fort Myers, Fla., the team's spring training site, with the other players on Wednesday.

"It was not easy leaving my newborn son behind, and I certainly felt some sadness and loneliness parting ways with him," he said, "but my family were very supportive."

So Dice-K is here. The fans and frenzy have followed.

After Boston's workout Friday, about two dozen cameramen swarmed him and four boom mikes hovered overhead as he answered questions in front of his dugout.

Imagine how it will be when the Tokyo Dome is filled on Tuesday night and Matsuzaka is on the mound.

"For a while I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to make the trip," he said, "but everything worked out well and I'm glad to be here and, most especially, glad to be able to pitch in person, live in front of all the Japanese fans."

Notes:@ Red Sox pitchers Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin and Bryan Corey visited troops and their family members at the US Army Base Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture. They signed autographs and posed for pictures. ... Timlin's availability for the four games is uncertain. He had stitches in his right ring finger after it was hit by a ball in a minor league game Wednesday. ... Hawaiian-born Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki's grandparents were born in Japan.

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