Tokyo Jake Levin used to be the only Boston Red Sox fan on his baseball team, which isn't so surprising, given that his team is the Tokyo Kitasuna and plays in a youth league about half a planet away from Boston.
What really bugged 11-year-old third baseman Levin, the only American playing on one of Japan's best youth clubs, is that most of his teammates were New York Yankees fans. Hideki Matsui plays in New York. And until this year, Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, have been the beginning, middle and end, as far as baseball stardom in Japan goes.
But this spring in Tokyo, there's a new cap in town.
"They're all wearing Red Sox stuff this year," Levin says. He figures "about 10 guys on the team have switched," and the sole reason for Boston's sudden popularity is the frenzy surrounding pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, probably the most explosive and certainly most expensive Japanese hurler to hit the major leagues.
"They're all obsessed with Matsuzaka," says Levin. "He's always the topic of conversation."
It can be tough on a Japanese kid's body clock, though, to watch Matsuzaka's much-hyped appearances these days. His first pitch that counted was thrown just after 3 a.m. on April 6, though you could catch it just about any time that day, as it was endlessly replayed on TV - and provided an advertising windfall for Japan's Dandy House men's salon, which had cleverly bought the panel behind home plate for the first inning and ended up with Paris Hilton-magnitude exposure.
But the wave of Japanese exports to Major League Baseball has left fans here accustomed to odd-hour viewing. Businessmen can watch Suzuki take his swings at lunchtime when the Mariners are on the West Coast, and Japanese housewives are now among the most familiar with Matsui and the Yankees, whose home games come on just after husbands and kids leave in the morning.
In fact, part of the buzz over Matsuzaka here is because Japanese fans are finally getting a chance to see him pitch. Like Suzuki before him, Matsuzaka played his Japanese ball in the Pacific League, whose six teams get little national TV exposure.
National telecasts have always been dominated by the vaunted Tokyo Yomiuri Giants - Matsui's former team - meaning the Giants and their five Central League opponents get most of the media attention. When Matsui agonized about leaving the Giants for the Yankees before the 2003 season, much of Japan played Hamlet along with him.
By comparison, Matsuzaka's departure was mostly a blow to Seibu Lions fans, although they were consoled by the $51 million fee Boston paid the team for the right to negotiate with the pitcher. His legend as a national treasure is based on his stellar pitching in the 1998 summer high school baseball tournament where Matsuzaka fired a no-hitter to lead his Yokohama high school to a championship.
But though his pro stats over eight years were phenomenal, he was racking them up playing for Seibu in its suburban Tokyo stadium. Until the nation tuned in to see his brilliant starts in last year's World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka was barely on the national radar.
"I laugh when I hear Matsuzaka described these days as a national hero and a Japanese icon," says Marty Kuehnert, an executive with the Rakuten Eagles of the Pacific League who has a long association with Japanese baseball. "If he was such a national hero, how come he was never on TV? Almost none of his games were televised nationally last year.
"The irony is that because the Pacific League gets so little national TV, people here didn't really get to see (ex-Pacific Leaguer Hideo) Nomo pitch or Ichiro hit until they went to the States."
Japanese baseball has plenty of problems these days, from declining TV audiences to the continuing refusal of teams to cooperate on marketing and revenue sharing to a widening scandal over organizations bribing young players.
To casual observers, the exodus of Japanese stars to the U.S. should be added as another symptom of a sport in distress. But those closest to the Japanese game argue that those departures have been a blessing, providing a shot of glamour to a sport that now faces competition for the hearts of Japanese boys.
Market research here shows that the Japanese associate Major League Baseball with success, prestige and big salaries. And the fans' attachment is to the Japanese players who cross the Pacific to play on the big stage.