Before Daisuke Matsuzaka even set foot in the United States as a member of the Red Sox, his legend had already spun wildly out of control.
A hero known as Dice-K in his home country for throwing 250 pitches in a high school championship watched by the entire nation. Owner of a fastball that clocked in at 155 km/h, which sounds really fast! A sorcerer conjuring something known as a gyroball, a pitch theorized about in labs, but never seen in the wild.
The Red Sox scouted Matsuzaka for years. They spent months formulating a $51.1 million bid just to earn the right to negotiate with him. It took heart-pounding 11th hour negotiations with super-agent Scott Boras to forge a contract in December of 2006.
And so for the next two months, between Matsuzaka signing a six-year, $52 million deal and arriving in Fort Myers for the start of spring training, Boston pulsed with an anticipation akin to the debut of The Beatles.
In Matsuzaka, not only did they secure their next great pitcher in a line that traced from Roger Clemens to Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling, but they had found the international sensation who could lead them into their next era of championships while becoming a global superstar.
"I want to see what he brings to the table," Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon mused at the time, as curious as the rest of us.
If one moment came to summarize the Daisuke experience, it was his arrival in Tampa on a commercial flight from Los Angeles in February of 2007. Dozens of media and cameras surrounded him at baggage claim, where Matsuzaka held an impromptu press conference while confused travelers held up digital cameras, wondering who exactly merited such attention. One European traveler asked an AP reporter if Matsuzaka played soccer.
The Red Sox were ready for the crush of attention. They warned other clubs during spring training to prepare for 50 or more reporters when Matsuzaka started, at one point requiring temporary press seating in foul territory. They served sushi in media dining. They added space in the back of the Fenway Park press box to account for the influx of Japanese reporters whose sole job was to chronicle the doings of Daisuke, whose exploits merited 24-7 coverage in his home country, even if he only pitched once every five days.
"I've never seen anything like this," said then-Red Sox PR director John Blake, who quickly learned that Matsuzaka could only conduct group interviews, lest he spend all of his free time answering questions from the insatiable horde on the Dice-K beat.
When Matsuzaka finally took the mound, he looked pretty good, although he didn't measure up to the Sidd Finch levels of hype that accompanied his arrival. He struck out 10 in his big-league debut, beating the Royals with seven innings of one-run ball. He struck out 10 more two starts later and then beat the Yankees two starts in a row despite not pitching particularly well in either of them.
Matsuzaka went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA as a rookie, helping the Red Sox to another World Series. By the end of that season, we knew he'd never be transcendent, not with his tendency to nibble around the strike zone and serve up home runs, and indeed, the legend of Daisuke would fizzle after he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA while finishing fourth in the 2008 Cy Young voting, his career derailed by a series of injuries that limited him to an average of 14 starts a year over his final four seasons in Boston. We never did see him throw a gyroball.
But even if Matsuzaka never lived up to that early hype, at least he generated it in the first place, because for those who lived it, there was nothing quite like Dice-K Mania.
John Tomase relives "Dice-K Mania" as part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.