Thursday April 12th, 2007

Several dozen Japanese TV reporters -- minicams shouldered and boom mikes at the ready -- waited for Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to emerge for his 4 p.m. stretch at Fenway Park on Wednesday afternoon. Dice-K climbed the dugout steps. He saw the assembled scrum. He paused ... and bowed and doffed his cap.

Fenway may indeed be, as Dice-K himself has called it, "sacred ground." But this moment seemed to be imported whole from some entirely different place of worship -- a temple in Kyoto, perhaps. It was a bit of tea ceremony amidst the hubbub accompanying Matsuzaka's Fenway debut, the very first pitch of which he delivered to countryman Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners.

Smart move by Ichiro to take that fastball, even if it turned out to be a called strike: He would have been too blinded by flashbulbs to make contact.

For sheer tail-wagging-the-dog value, the prelude to Seattle's 3-0 victory over Boston was rich as Croesus. There was an American reporter interviewing a Japanese reporter. There, a Japanese reporter interviewing another Japanese reporter. And --- yes, there! -- a Japanese reporter interviewing ... Peter Gammons. Occasionally, quotes actually surfaced from the protagonists themselves: Ichiro promised that the confrontation would "awaken the zest deep down."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona tried to offer an antidote to all the hype. Michael Jordan's first Southern League game in North Carolina had generated more buzz, insisted Francona, who was M.J.'s manager with the Birmingham Barons. But whoopee has its own momentum when it's bilingual and bicontinental.

Oh, yes -- they played the rest of a ballgame. In a broad rebuke of the hype, Dice-K lasted only seven innings and Ichiro took an oh-fer. Meanwhile, Seattle's RBIs came from a Cuban (Yuniesky Betancourt), a Dominican (Adrian Beltre) and a Puerto Rican (Jose Vidro), while the Venezuelan phenom Felix Hernandez -- call him Feel-X -- held the Red Sox to a single hit.

My colleague Albert Chen referred to the Ali-Frazier crackle in the air. There's an additional dimension to that analogy, for the Thrilla in Manila also involved two adversaries who relocated from their common country to a remote venue.

That stage was important Wednesday night.

To the Japanese, how Dice-K and Ichiro fare individually pales next to how they collectively represent their homeland, especially to Americans in America. Consider: The highest Japanese TV rating for any of Dice-K's games with the Seibu Lions last season was 6.1. By contrast, his first U.S. start, in Kansas City last week, drew an 8.1 -- and for the Mariners-Red Sox game, Japanese TV was expecting an audience up to three times larger than that. (Guess you don't call them "the overnights" when the game airs at 8 a.m. local time.)

The autobiography of Saduharu Oh, Japan's all-time home run king, is shot full of modesty, humility and references to the serene arts of aikido, Kabuki and samurai swordsmanship. Yet it contains two appendices: one devoted entirely to testimonials from Americans, and another juxtaposing Oh's stats, flatteringly, with those of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. If ever there were a country to which Japan wants to send a message with its baseball, it's the U.S.

The hype will probably ratchet up another notch later this month when Matsuzaka first faces the Yankees' Hideki Matsui, whose status back home is even loftier than Ichiro's. But the real story will remain the rivalry between two baseball countries with distinctive baseball cultures.

Except for Wednesday night, when what we all thought was going to be a Japanese thing turned out to be a Latin thing.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.