Cover BoyThe offseason in Japan is at times even slower than the winter in the United States. Where you have 24 hour sports networks pondering the comings and goings of free agents and new faces throughout the network of Major and Minor League teams in the United States, most baseball intrigue in Japan is reserved for a few players receiving their salary raises (or cuts) based on their past season's performances. Not much for the die hard fan to sink their teeth into, to say the least.
This year I've been watching the popular season recap programs featuring the World Baseball Classic, the classic two day final of the 88th Koshien Summer Baseball Tournament, the championship earned by the Nippon Ham Fighters, and finally the bevy of posting moves that have delivered home grown heroes into the hands of American League East rivals. There is really very little of interest on those programs, as celebrities from the world of comedy, music, television dramas, and sports gather to make jokes, nod in approval after the presentation of each majestic highlight reel, and generally summarize the happenings of the year passing into the pages of history. It's a bit like a Jerry Lewis telethon, hosted by ESPN.
Fortunately, there are always the glossy baseball magazines to the rescue. All year long, several publications produce beautifully laid-out tributes to the world of professional baseball. It should be no surprise to anyone that the recent editions of these periodicals would feature Matsuzaka in heavy rotation. Nothing sells better than Daisuke Matsuzaka when it comes to baseball in Japan in the year 2007. It remains to be seen whether Matsuzaka's persona will be able to wrest the throne of Japan's favorite son from Ichiro over the long haul, but for the moment the spotlight is fixed squarely on the kid from Yokohama.
One of the popular magazines delivering Japanese fans the Major League beat is "Slugger" magazine. The February 2007 edition is also the 2007 Season Preview. I am a notorious "season preview edition" addict, and I'm quite certain that I've helped keep The Sporting News in the business of print for several decades now. This preview contains a lot of very nice write ups about the new crop of Japanese Major Leaguers, including a short piece on the Yankees' Kei Igawa and a translated Tyler Kepner piece on the fans of Red Sox Nation. Kepner's story is a short look at Curt Schilling's impressions of the fandom that follows the Sox, and leaves the reader with a sense that New Yorkers are near the pinnacle of knowledge and passion about their club, but Red Sox faithful take it to another level. The name of the story is a play on words using chinese characters. It reads "The Powerful (fanatic) Baseball Town Waiting for The Monster (Daisuke)."
There are other Red Sox related pieces in this special issue. You'll find a funny piece about Manny Being Manny, where the Japanese writer notes that while speculation surrounding a Manny Ramirez move has died down, his desire to go elsewhere and his oddball behavior leave the door open to a 2007 lineup without him. There is also a short survey style interview with Kevin Youkilis that talks about the passionate booing and cheering that Red Sox players must endure, even as rookies. If you note in the photo corresponding to the Youkilis piece, on the right hand side you get a glimpse of an MLB merchandise ad featuring a Carlton Fisk "Stay Fair" statuette and some apparel. "Be the first kid on the block to get a Carlton Fisk figurine! Amaze your friends!! Whoever among them even knows who Carlton Fisk is......"
The other publication I picked up was the aforementioned Official MLB Magazine - Japan Edition. The Matsuzaka story here is more of a chronicle of how Daisuke arrived at the doorstep of a Major League career. It also talks a bit about the American media reaction to his posting and subsequent negotiation. There are also lengthy features about Igawa and Iwamura, among others. Both magazines talk a bit about Scott Boras and his power, as well as Ryan Howard and his swing. There are also full length features on Chien Min Wang in both magazines, of which the "Slugger" feature gets the best position, directly following Matsuzaka. It's called "Asian Ace in Bronx", showcasing the important Asian influence the Majors are enjoying from the Far East in the new millennium. Those seem to be popular topics in Japan after a Fall of major media coverage on both fronts.
To wrap things up here today, I'll report the inception of Matsuzaka advertising on the level that has only been seen with Hideki Matsui and Ichiro to this point. It's apparent that the Sox have purchased a reputation on the grand scale in Japan. Everytime Matsuzaka is on television the Red Sox logo is with him. The only thing left to do for Theo is get an everyday player to increase the everyday exposure of the Red Sox brand in Japan. That's something for another day....