Walking along the concourse at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Newswire Japan photographer Hideo Yamasaki stood out in the crowd of mostly Irish- and Italian-American baseball fans who came to see the major league ballpark debut of star Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka as the Phillies faced the Boston Red Sox.
Nearly 40,000 baseball fans and several hundred media members were buzzing with anticipation over Matsuzaka and his fabled gyroball pitch, on the teams’ final spring training exhibition game on Saturday, March 31, 2007. Yamasaki, a photographer for 16 years, was among the 45 Japanese media members at the game, according to MLB.com.
The Red Sox spent $103 million this winter to sign Matsuzaka, 26, who pitched eight dominant seasons in Japan and was MVP of the global tournament World Baseball Classic in 2006. His popularity, in part, caused the Phillies to pay the Red Sox $500,000 for their two-game series , the final games of Spring Training, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Matsuzaka pitched erratically in his first start and win in a Major League stadium, throwing 82 pitches in four innings in the 7-5 game. He allowed two hits, four walks, three earned runs including one home run and seven strikeouts. Though fans were split on if he threw the gyroball — a revolutionary pitch that comes in like a fastball but turns away at the last moment – Matsuzaka struck out four players looking, an unusually high number.
Matsuzaka threw three types of pitches: a 90-91 mph fastball, a 74 mph curveball and an 80 mph changeup. Though the scoreboard could not display “gyroball,” Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said Matsuzaka threw him the pitch, according to the Associated Press recap. Matsuzaka, one of 14 Japanese players in the Majors, finished the spring with a 2-1 record, a low 2.91 ERA and a team-high 26 strikeouts in 21 innings, according to the Boston Herald.
The crowd of 39,118 was a laid-back mix of Red Sox and Phillies fans, both clad in red hats, t-shirts and jerseys. “It’s a lot of fun, it’s not as intense because it’s preseason,” said Red Sox fan Dave Bowser, 51, from Easton, PA, who was there with a friend. “But we still enjoy it because it’s baseball.” Phillies ushernice Michael O’Brien, a 31-year-old from Philadelphia, agreed. “If it were a regular season game, both sides would be a little more rammed up,” he said.
Though Red Sox and Japanese fans came to see Matsuzaka in Philadelphia, where tickets are cheaper and more available than during the regular season at Boston’s Fenway Park, many Phillies fans came just to see a baseball game. “Who cares about Matsuzaka-mania?” said Frank Ross, 36, from Collingswood, NJ. “We’re Phillies fans.”
There were also many Japanese fans. Near Section 112 in the lower deck, there were five Japanese families totaling about 17 people. One girl in a red Ryan Howard jersey (Howard is the Phillies’ slugging first baseman) held up a lime green sign reading in Japanese: “#18 Matsuzaka,” her Mom said, and then a red “Phillies” sign.
Munue Takahashi, a 45-year-old from Yamanashite, Japan, drove from Delaware to see Matsuzaka. “I like Matsuzaka because he pitched for the Seibu Lions,” he said. The Seibu Lions are the Japanese League team for which Matsuzaka pitched for 7 seasons. Takahashi added: “The Japanese media follows all the Japanese players here everyday. There’s a lot of coverage of Matsuzaka.”
Newswire Japan photographer Hideo Yamasaki agreed. “Matsuzaka is very, very popular in Japan,” said Yamasaki, a 16-year photographer. “But in Japan, there are different cheering sections, who wave flags and beat drums. This is calmer.”
Every fan interviewed said Matsuzaka would win at least 15 games this season. Yamasaki said the Japanese media are predicting at least 20 wins. “I believe Matsuzaka is better than [Hideo] Nomo,” Takahashi said. Nomo was a star Japanese pitcher who pitched in the Majors from 1995-2006, and his Rookie-of-the-Year season sparked “Nomo-mania.”
“I saw Matsuzaka pitch in Japan, he was a great, great pitcher,” Takahashi said, proud of his fellow countryman. “Matsuzaka will win over 15 games this year. I think he’ll pitch very well.”
 Salisbury, Jim. “Matsumania Arrives.” Philadelphia Inquirer. (Link no longer online.)