04/11/07 11:43 PM ET
Fans pack Fenway to witness history
Red Sox Nation officially welcomes Matsuzaka to Boston
By Alex McPhillips / MLB.com
They came for more than a rumor. As they made it clear when they crowded the gates of Fenway Park's player parking lot and clustered down Yawkey Way on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, hours before Daisuke Matsuzaka's first start in the home whites of the Red Sox, the Boston fans came not just to see the show, but to be the show.
By nightfall, the Fenway Faithful made Matsuzaka's showdown with Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners bigger than a ballgame, just as they did once when Pedro Martinez took the mound every fifth day in the late 1990s.
Fans roared on every two-strike count. They generated a light show of flashbulb bursts. They chanted rhythmically, after two quick strikes to Ichiro in the first -- "Dice-K! Dice-K!" -- in such crackling unison that baseball had a distinctly different sound on this early April evening: somehow foreign and never dull, like a European soccer match or, just maybe, a ballgame across the Pacific.
Wednesday night's game was an event; it was a spectacle. Never before had so many rising sun flags waved above the stands at Fenway, celebrating Japanese solidarity with Red Sox Nation.
As the wind picked up, so did the American flag bunting that lined the decks, an odd contrast against the scores of fans -- of all ages, both American and Japanese -- who tied the national hachimaki of Japan around their heads below it.
Most of them came by their souvenir headbands outside the Fenway gates, where local vendors were distributing them for free.
But Kiyomi and Yukari Ueta made theirs. The Uetas said that the characters they'd marked on their hachimaki ribbons signified "Victory" in Japanese.
They spoke little English, but had no trouble explaining what they meant.
"Daisuke is [the] Japanese No. 1 pitcher," Kiyomi said. "Ichiro is the Japanese No. 1 player."
Who were they rooting for?
"Daisuke," Kiyomi said with a laugh.
The Uetas flew in from Okinawa on Monday, tickets in hand for both Tuesday's home opener and Matsuzaka's debut.
Another Japanese couple, Yukari and Yuchiro Sato, flew in from Tokyo on Thursday. As Ichiro displayed his smooth left-handed swing in the Mariners' cage 90 minutes before the game started, the Satos waved large Japanese flags on which they'd drawn pictures of dice and written "gyro" in English.
Not long after, they were mobbed by a group of cameramen, both American and Japanese, and mugged for the cameras.
"It's the beginning of a new era," said Ron Pursey of Chickopee, Mass., who brought his father, Chip, to Dice-K's debut and smiled at the chaotic pregame scene.
Pursey received his tickets from a friend who couldn't make the matchup. Neither man knew at the time just how much of a sacrifice that exchange would be.
"We just lucked out," Pursey said.
When Matsuzaka earned his second strike on Jose Lopez after a series of hard-hit balls resulted in a second-inning run, Boston native Mike Romei and his friends stood in their infield grandstand seats and cheered.
"Part of being a fan is being part of the park," Romei said after Matsuzaka induced an inning-ending out. "It's coming and cheering, and coming and getting the crowd fired up."
Only where fan loyalties intersected did things get complicated. Brett Mathieson and Mike Paoletti, both of West Haven, Conn., bought their tickets long before they knew the pitching matchup.
"We bought tickets because he's a Mariners fan, and this is the only night game of the year here," Mathieson said, gesturing at Paoletti.
Paoletti grew up rooting for Seattle because of his allegiance to Ken Griffey Jr. Paoletti could hardly contain his excitement on Wednesday, because the Mariners' weekend snow-out in Cleveland had reset the pitching rotation, giving him a chance to see the night's other main attraction.
"It just so happened that Felix [Hernandez] got bumped over to this day," Paoletti said.
And so it went on Wednesday night, as Red Sox fans from around the world starred in a show they didn't quite expect.
Whether they paid top dollar or just lucked out, they got two monster sightings for the price of one.
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.