This year, as even those who don't follow baseball will surely know, the Red Sox signed a new pitcher from Japan: Daisuke Matsuzaka. I'm not going to get sports geeky on you; suffice to say that he's got a reputation as a pretty good pitcher. He also has a reputation for having a mystery pitch - the Gyro Ball. We'll get to that later.
Matsuzaka's appearance on the American baseball scene has been amazing and nothing short of flamboyant. This is not, by far, the first Japanese player the MLB has had. Two Japanese superstars have already made their way to the U.S. - Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui - to say nothing of dozens of Japanese players that did not have superstar status before coming to the MLB (and still don't). So having a new Japanese player in the system shouldn't be that much of an event, aside from the fact that he's supposed to be, as I said before, a pretty good pitcher.
But somehow something has gone terribly wrong... or maybe terribly right? He has been greeted by the Media Machine that Boston is so famous for with something akin to Victorian amazement. Sometimes it feels like (Red Sox General Manager) Theo Epstein has just arrived from Africa with the first giraffe that these low-class Londoners have ever seen.
The press, from newspaper to television, calls him "Dice-K," as if Daisuke were difficult to pronounce. They don't call Ichiro Suzuki "The Suze," they don't call Hideki Matsui "H-Mat" (though maybe they should) - why this guy? Is he good at craps? Possible! But considering it's a rough Americanization of his name, I suspect the nickname is as transparent as it seems. Football announcers pronounce "De Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila" with relative ease - are baseball announcers just that stupid? Are baseball writers just that lazy? I doubt it.
However, it doesn't actually matter - because Matsuzaka has done nothing to change it. He surely knows that people aren't just pronouncing his name wrong, but actually saying something else, entirely. I think it's part of his game. You see, he brought something with him to the MLB that the others didn't: mystique.
The Gyroball is a pitch that does not exist in professional baseball, and may not exist at all. You can read a fairly interesting article about it on Wikipedia, but even the inventor of the Gyroball can't seem to prove that it exists. Even the information-short Wikipedia entry leaves us this tantalizing detail:
"Daisuke Matsuzaka is working on a gyroball and has reportedly thrown it in a game, but only by accident."
By accident! That's how mysterious it is! It can barely be recognized, it can only be thrown when you're not trying to throw it! Soon you'll hear the myth that Sox catcher Jason Varitek has to constantly move his mitt - the target of Matsuzaka's pitch - because it is well known that if an object sits perfectly still, the Japanese cannot see it. Anybody who has ever watched anime will know this is true.
This is where the true brilliance about Matsuzaka really comes out. When asked about the gyroball by the Boston press prior to Spring Training he had this fantastic quote:
"I knew this question was coming today. And I was preparing some optional answers for this particular question. Should I say, 'I have that ball'? Or I could say, 'Which particular ball are you referring to?' Or 'Which ball are you calling a gyroball?'
Overall, if I have the chance, I will pitch that ball."
Good god. He doesn't even know if it exists, but he does know this, I'm sure if it: Baseball players are some amazingly superstitious people. You might laugh at stupid things in Bull Durham or Major League, but that stuff is in those movies because it's true. People don't wash, they wear the same socks for weeks, their shoes must point east prior to a game, the list goes on; they're documented everywhere. Baseball players are crazy, and nothing will work better on them than some mythical pitch that may or may not even exist.
Don't think so? Check out this quote from an article on an earlier Red Sox/Marlins Spring Training game:
"He threw four different pitches to me - a fastball, slider, gyro and curve," said Stokes. On the gyro, "He threw it up and in. I could see it was obviously a ball right away. I’m thinking ‘Get out of the way.’ It kind of backs up on you."
"It looks like a split, but it’s slower," said Hermida. "It didn’t have the same spin as a split. It had its own unique character."
Hermida saw Matsuzaka turn his wrist over in a screwball-like manner, which gives the ball its reverse spin.
You can't force that kind of rampant speculation onto people, they have to bring it onto themselves, and I'm positive Matsuzaka knows that. It's why he lets the stupid nicknames and the stupid rumors persist. Because he knows that while he's got that mystique in full swing, he will have Major League Baseball, and all their sponsors and fans, in the palm of his hand.
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3.19.07 @ 11:37a
Actually, "Dice-K" is a decent representation of the Japanese pronunciation. It's probably closer than most of the Americans who are trying to pronounce "Daisuke" the way it's spelled.
3.19.07 @ 11:40a
3.19.07 @ 11:43a
Does this make his slower younger brother "Special-K"?
3.19.07 @ 11:47a
3.19.07 @ 12:27p
Brian, that's what I was wondering. Is the middle syllable unstressed?
3.19.07 @ 12:58p
Japanese doesn't have a stress accent, but short U's and I's tend to be de-emphasized. For example, Japanese "sukoshi" ('a little bit') has been adopted in English as "skosh."
3.20.07 @ 1:15a
For those of us who are lay sports people - does having a Japanese pitcher really make that big of a difference? Is he really that much better? The Sox couldn't find some dude from Oklahoma or Mississippi or somesuch?
3.20.07 @ 9:27a
Well, they've also got a great pitcher from Lousiana, otherwise, no.
Nobody from Oklahoma is good at baseball.
3.21.07 @ 2:52p
I think this whole Dice-K thing is hilarious. The dude is totally enjoying the ride, and it's great he seems to have the MLB in the palm of his hand.
Tracey, while I don't think a Japanese pitcher automatically makes a *huge* difference, I do know the Japanese take whatever they adapt (technology, music, fashion or sports) to a whole new level. I'm not surprised talented guys like Dice-K are getting noticed by the MLB, because baseball geekery has been big in Japan for some time- since they're pretty committed to the sport, they're turning out some pretty good players. (Not quite an expected thing, but hey, they dug Baywatch too.)
3.21.07 @ 2:55p
Oh yeah. Let's not forget that Japan won the Baseball World Cup (or whatever they called it. The World Baseball Classic?), largely due to the pitching of Matsuzaka.
He has the MLB by the balls and none of them have any idea.
3.22.07 @ 12:18p
They used the WBC name because the "Baseball World Cup" already exists as the amateur world championship.
Usually it takes Japanese players about a half-season to warm up to MLB play: while they have one of the best developed systems, MLB is still a bit faster and harder than the Japanese pro league.
In addition, with the Japanese teams losing a lot of revenue to the newer J. League soccer, the money for big salaries is getting tighter for baseball players. That's why MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball agreed to the "posting" system where an MLB team is required to bid for the opportunity to even *negotiate* with the players.