Manny, Okajima dazzle Tokyo Dome

Kanda Dome
Pouring one out at Kanda Dome
TOKYO (TR) – It was the other Japanese guy.

Aided by timely hitting from Manny Ramirez, Hideki Okajima pitched an inning of relief to win the first game of a two-game series for the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox over the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo.

Ramirez’s second two-run double in the top of the tenth broke a 4-4 tie and closer Jonathan Papelbon hung on to send the Red Sox and their new Japanese fans home happy with a 6-5 win in spite of a shaky performance from this week’s talk-of-the-town, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In the shadow of fellow countryman Matsuzaka for most of last year, the left-handed Okajima received a standing ovation from the Tokyo Dome crowd of 44,628 when he entered in the top of the ninth.

As the crowd filed out of the stadium and into the crisp night air, the buzz was about Okajima, who enjoyed an eleven-year career with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. “Up until Ramirez’s first double, the crowd was pretty quiet,” said Kenji Ayao, 30 an A’s fan. “But once Okajima entered the voltage went through the roof. The number of flashbulbs popping as he released each pitch was amazing.”

After winning 15 games in his rookie campaign, this week was Matsuzaka’s homecoming. The right-hander rose to stardom as a member of the Pacific League’s Seibu Lions, whose home dome in Tokorozawa is a one-hour train ride from downtown Tokyo.

Pennants at Tokyo Dome
News crews relentlessly hounded the star all week. At a welcoming party last Friday, shutters clicked as Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, whose grandparents were born in Japan, and Matsuzaka cracked open a wood sake barrel with baseball bats in a traditional kagamiwari kickoff ceremony.

As trains crisscrossed Tokyo during Tuesday’s evening rush hour, the hometown fans, who did not engage in the rhythmic cheering that is standard at Japanese games, saw Matsuzaka struggle from the outset. In the first inning, Mark Ellis slugged a home run to left center and the Athletics pushed across one more to take a 2-0 lead. He exited after five innings having walked five and given up two runs. After Boston took a 6-4 lead in the top of the tenth, a one-out RBI double by Emil Brown brought the A’s within one, but Papelbon got Suzuki to ground out with two runners on base to end it.

Matsuzaka’s appearance is certainly the highlight of the week. At a ticket shop in a downtown shopping district, 12,000-yen ($120) seats for Matsuzaka’s start were selling for 30,000 yen. For the concluding game tomorrow, when Rich Harden and Jon Lester will take the mound, tickets were fetching merely face value.

On Monday excitement was slightly dampened after the rabidly popular Giants and Hanshin Tigers had been swept by the major league teams in four weekend exhibition games. The one scoreless inning tossed by Okajima on Sunday against the Giants stood as one of the bright spots, likely leaving the fans under the puffy white roof of the dome wondering just which set of teams might be suffering from jet-lag.

T-shirts at Tokyo Dome
The Japanese media searched for positives. Monday’s cover of the Tokyo tabloid Sports Hochi featured photos of the five Red Sox batters set down on strikes by Giants southpaw Tetsuya Utsumi during his two brilliant innings of relief work. Inside, Okajima’s appearance was given a full story under a headline in bold kanji script that read: “I’m back.” The front of Daily Sports, a publication based in the Hanshin stronghold of Kobe, featured multiple frames of a sliding catch by Tigers outfielder Lou Ford in the third inning of Saturday’s game against Boston.

Strict television scheduling was another reminder that unless Matsuzaka is taking the ball nothing else can be too important. With the Athletics-Giants contest tied at two in the sixth inning on Saturday, Nippon Television sent fans scrambling for their radio knobs after it killed its broadcast at 9 p.m. in favor of a weather report and variety show. The match-up between the Tigers and A’s on Sunday was not broadcast live, and with Nippon Television again upholding its 9 p.m. curfew, viewers were just barely able to see J.D. Drew’s grand slam in the sixth but not Julian Tavarez’s recording of the final out in the ninth.

After a tour through the streets of Tokyo, however, it would be a mistake to conclude that Matsuzaka mania had swept over everyone in the metropolis. On Monday evening at Kanda Dome, a baseball-themed restaurant in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward where diners can chow down on fried noodles beneath a curved, dome-like ceiling and wall-mounted jerseys of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the general feeling was that Matsuzaka has moved on and so should everyone else.

“He is like a little boy, a high school boy,” says manager Kayoko Takeshita, 77, of the tattered and heavily taped poster near the register that shows Matsuzaka in his powder blue Lions uniform. “But now that he is a man I hardly recognize him.”

Vendor at Tokyo Dome
Most of the middle-aged diners in Kanda Dome were unaware that the former Lions hero was set to pitch the following day; instead they were occupied with the 80th National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament ongoing at Koshien Stadium in Osaka.

Seeking equal billing to the opening series was Friday’s Pacific League opener, and it proved to be a dazzler. Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines were shut out 1-0 by Nippon Ham Fighters right-hander Yu Darvish. The lanky 21-year-old’s four-hit, ten-strikeout performance further strengthened the argument of experts who think he will soon follow Matsuzaka across the Pacific.

Such predictions rekindle worries that Nippon Pro Baseball is simply becoming a minor league. Masayuki Tamaki, a noted baseball writer, believes that the high salaries found in the U.S. – as evidenced by the $52 million contract Matsuzaka signed before last season – are not the only reason players have left Japan. He points out that ownership only concerns itself with the profit of the parent company – which could be a drink manufacturer or candy company — and not with properly managing teams or investing in top-of-the-line facilities. “In America,” he says, “the players can concentrate on baseball only.”

This year Kosuke Fukudome, the two-time Central League batting champ for the Chunichi Dragons, will patrol right field for the Chicago Cubs and Hiroki Kuroda, formerly of the Hiroshima Carp, will be slotted into the rotation of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Right-handed pitchers Kenshin Kawakami of the Dragons and the Koji Uehara of the Giants are expected to make similar moves overseas in 2009.

Tamaki believes that the old-school NPB world is still wallowing in the glory of its history and lacks any kind of vision of the future. “In Japan,” the journalist explains, “there are former players, veteran journalists, and front office management who want to be seen as sempai (mentors) to the current players, but in truth they are like annoying flies.”

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