Matsuzaka, Okajima host scribes
Japanese hurlers treat writers to lunch to forge amity
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The idea behind Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima hosting 10 Boston media members for lunch on Wednesday was to create an informal setting that allowed the players to get to know the people who will be covering them, and vice versa.
Clearly, the mood in the room at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Myers was relaxed. Never was that more evident than when Matsuzaka -- asked about his knowledge of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry -- did a hilarious and animated impersonation of Pedro Martinez pushing Don Zimmer to the Fenway turf.
Then there was a thump loud enough for all 15 people at the table to hear.
Matsuzaka was having so much fun, he accidentally clocked his precious right elbow on the wooden table.
Breathe easy, Red Sox fans. Breathe easy, Red Sox ownership and front office. The pitcher was fine, even managing a hearty laugh after the comical moment.
With two translators on hand, both pitchers touched on a variety of issues in a sitdown that lasted more than 90 minutes.
The first thing that was clear is that both pitchers are picking up the language nicely.
Upon meeting a media member, Matsuzaka put out his right hand and said, "Nice to meet you."
Both pitchers ordered drinks on their own: "Iced tea, please," said Matsuzaka.
Perhaps helped by their outgoing personalities, neither has had a hard time feeling at home with his new teammates.
"A lot of them are just very friendly and come up to me and say hello and talk to me in a very friendly and frank manner," said Matsuzaka. "And for the past six weeks, I think I've become pretty friendly with a lot of them."
"They all came and talked to me, instead of me approaching them," said Okajima. "Also, they have very big hearts and are very generous and kind. They speak a little bit of Japanese, and I speak a little English, so that helps to develop a relationship with my teammates."
It's unclear whether the two have heard about the phenomenon known as Manny Being Manny. Still, they both seem to enjoy the quirkiness of their cleanup hitter.
"If I run into him in the locker room, he's always quick to give a really friendly greeting," said Matsuzaka. "Similar to Big Papi, he has a very open, bright personality."
Though his gyroball is a myth, at least according to just about every scout, coach and manager, Matsuzaka is clearly having fun playing along. If an opposing hitter actually believes in it, he isn't going to be one to dispel the notion.
"I'm always excited and interested in learning about new pitches," he said. "So if we were talking about somebody else, I think I'd be enjoying it a lot more. If it was somebody else's new pitch and I was on the outside looking in, I'd probably be having a better time with it."
One reporter went so far as to ask him to demonstrate the gyro grip with a dinner roll.
"There is a grip, but I can't show you, I'm sorry," he said.
Following are some highlights from the lunch, in Q&A format:
Q: How have both of you found the food, and what have you been doing to relax during Spring Training?
Matsuzaka: "I've been taking most of my dinners at home, so there haven't been any worries about food. As for relaxing, I just like to sit at home and read a book. If I have the time, go out for a round of golf."
Okajima: "To relax, I go to the swimming pool and swim a little bit. And also, I enjoy the weather very much, so I take advantage of that. During the season, I don't play golf too much."
Q: What are Matsuzaka's expectations for this season, and does he have a certain win total in mind?
Matsuzaka: "I think the fans certainly have great expectations for me, and I'd like to respond to those expectations in kind. I don't know what the fans, if they have a number, what it is. I guess, further within myself, there is maybe a baseline for success. I have certain expectations toward myself. But as far as giving you a hard number, what that might be, that's just something I can't do right now."
Q: If there's a baseball player you could have a couple of Asahis [Japanese beers] with, who would it be and why?
Matsuzaka: "Cy Young and Nolan Ryan. For Cy Young, clearly because he had the most wins in the history of baseball. For Nolan Ryan, he's someone that I actually looked up to and idolized growing up."
Q: Has Curt Schilling offered any advice?
Matsuzaka: "Yeah, he's advised me on a couple of technical things."
Okajima: "Curt Schilling is making a great effort in trying to communicate in Japanese."
Q: What do you watch on TV?
Matsuzaka: "Golf Channel, MTV, ESPN. Other than that, I just watch a lot of Hollywood movies on TV. It helps in listening for English words."
Q: Favorite movies?
Matsuzaka: "I've seen a lot. I saw Lethal Weapon, Cliffhanger, When Harry Met Sally. I also like Jackie Chan movies."
Okajima: "I like love stories. Ghost, Pretty Woman, Autumn in New York."
Q: How does Spring Training differ in Japan and the Major Leagues?
Matsuzaka: "Obviously, the biggest difference is the hours spent in formal practice. There are a lot more hours spent in formal, team organized practice in Japan. But that's not to say that the practice time here is inadequate. Rather, I prefer the way it's set up here, because you have your team activities and then that gives you a lot of time to work on personal things that you might want to work on. I haven't had any problems with the Spring Training format here."
Q: Is it fair to say Spring Training is more relaxed in the Major Leagues than in Japan?
Matsuzaka: "When I talked to my friends in Japan who have seen video of us practicing during spring camp, to a man, they say, 'Wow, it looks like you guys have a lot of fun over there.' But I don't think that's to say that the environment here is more relaxed. I think it's rather that, when you look around, everybody is laughing, everybody on the field is having a great time.
"I think in Japan, you know, there's a little bit more tension."
Okajima: "In Japan, even during the exhibition games, there's great expectations, and you have to do well and perform well and leave a good result. I think that helps create the tension during the exhibition season."
Q: What will the feeling be like on Opening Day in Kansas City?
Matsuzaka: "I think I get more nervous watching others play than actually being in the game myself. So on April 2, in our first regular-season game, I'll be watching with a high level of nervousness and excitement. I think, the first game that I'm actually starting, I'll probably be feeling a little more relaxed on that day."
Okajima: "I think I'm the opposite of Daisuke. I get nervous in the game in which I'm actually throwing. For me, I think, the first time I'm asked to take the ball, that's when I'm going to feel the most nervousness. For me, getting over that first game will be the big step. Once I get over that, I think I'll be a little more at ease.
"When the season opens, and I'm standing there on a Major League playing field, I think the thought to myself is going to be, 'Oh my God, do I really deserve to be here?' But that being said, I think it's such a special moment that it's something I'd like to cherish and respect as a great moment in my life."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.