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A Pro Powerhouse, Too?

March 1, 1999

Matsuzaka is mobbed by fans as he heads for spring training. (Jiji Press)

Baseball pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is probably the most watched new athlete of the year. Throwing for consecutive wins at both the spring and summer Koshien high school tournaments in 1998, this ace right-hander also held the autumn National Athletic Meet in his glove. Matsuzaka is often touted to have the kind of talent that comes once a decade--if even that. With the potential to become a professional pitching powerhouse, Matsuzaka has become the focus of intense attention across Japan since the end of his high school baseball career.

At the Top of a Top Sport
Baseball makes a strong case for being the most popular sport in Japan. When the season approaches, sports-related news is packed with baseball and the number of "baseball experts," even among businessmen, grows. This is not limited to professional baseball. High school baseball, overflowing with the kind of passion seldom seen in the pros, is tremendously popular. The Koshien tournaments, where teams from throughout the country vie for the high school baseball championship, are an indispensable part of spring and summer in Japan.

What has made pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka the subject of so much commotion? From the point of view of raw talent, Matsuzaka's biggest attraction is his super fastball. Generally clocked at well above 140 kilometers (87 miles) per hour, he pitched 150 kph (93 mph) in the spring Koshien tournament, 151 kph (94 mph) in the summer Koshien tournament, and marked his personal best, 153 kph (95 mph), at the fall National Athletic Meet. High-school pitchers are considered possible pro material if they pitch over 140 kph. Reaching into the 150s, however, places a pitcher among the very fastest of the pros. And Matsuzaka is still learning--with some serious professional training there is a strong chance that he will pitch even faster. When one considers that the fastest ball in Japanese baseball history was the 158 kph (98 mph) thrown by Hideki Irabu (now pitching for the New York Yankees in the Major Leagues), it is clear that Matsuzaka is in a league nearly by himself.

Koshien Tournament Thrills
Japanese baseball fans were first captivated by Matsuzaka during the quarterfinals of the 1998 summer Koshien tournament. A desperate 17-inning struggle was unfolding between Matsuzaka's Yokohama High School and PL Gakuen, widely famed for its baseball program. Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches under the broiling sun without any loss of concentration. Even as his exhaustion grew, his form never wavered and he maintained power and control. The outstanding stamina and ability Matsuzaka showed on the mound moved not only the fans, but pro baseball scouts as well. A mere two days later, Matsuzaka pitched a no-hit shutout in the championship game. A victory like that had only been seen once before in the Koshien finals--59 years earlier. Matsuzaka's popularity and reputation soared, and he became an overnight national hero.

Even after baseball season ended, Matsuzaka's popularity never waned. His every move was covered by the media, from the Japanese pro baseball draft, to contract negotiations, to his signing with the Seibu Lions, to the start of spring training. Of course the sports papers and the sports pages of general newspapers had a heyday with Matsuzaka, but interest about him even spread to the popular television "wide shows," which normally focus on entertainment news.

A Boost for Baseball?
The popularity of baseball itself has seen better days, and the number of fans showing up for games has been dwindling in recent years. Matsuzaka, however, in drawing attention from beyond baseball, seems like he might be a savior to revitalize the Japanese baseball world. Can he become the first Japanese pitcher to throw 160 kph (100 mph)? Whether or not he breaks that barrier, baseball fans will keep their eyes on him for some time to come, and baseball as a whole will enjoy the increased attention the young pitcher attracts.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.