In the end, too many people had too much to lose, both in money and in face. So, Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming to America at a cost to the Boston Red Sox of $103 million, about half to "Dice-K" himself and half to the Seibu Lions.
Half and half? How can that possibly be fair? The 26-year-old pitcher, the best hurler in Japan and the MVP of the World Baseball Classic, will get $52 million over six seasons, or $8.5 million a season. The Red Sox, and many others including me, believe Matsuzaka, if he stays healthy, will be one of the majors' elite pitchers immediately. The WBC showed the world his 96 mph fastball, his corner-cutting command, as well as a funky windup and a superb batch of breaking pitches. His urban-legend "gyroball" — whatever it is and however the "Monster" throws it — sure looks like a superb screwball. He may be Ichiro elite.
Yet Matsuzaka will make significantly less than utterly mediocre free agents of recent weeks, like Gil Meche ($55 million for five years), Ted Lilly ($40 million, four years) and Vicente Padilla ($34 million, three years). Meche has averaged an 11-9 record with a 4.74 ERA the last four years. Lilly is such a terrible fielder that he's started one double play in his whole career. Padilla is perhaps best known as the pitcher who begged off in extra innings and helped cause the ignominious All-Star Game "tie" of '02.
But they, and plenty of other pitchers, including perhaps ex-Nat Ramon Ortiz, will make as much as Matsuzaka, even though he has starred for six seasons in Japan — the number of years that would've made him a free agent here. However, in Japan such freedom requires nine years. So by the time his Boston deal runs out, Matsuzaka will be a dozen years into his career before he is truly free to bargain. If, considering how hard he's been worked in Japan, he can still lift his arm.
As for the Lions, they're swimming in sake now. Seibu, with a dinky $17 million payroll, gets a $51.1 million windfall because it "owns" the rights to Matsuzaka. For doing nothing, Seibu will get a check for three times its annual team payroll. That would be like a league from outer space offering the Red Sox $350 million — three times their payroll — so a team from Mars could try to sign Jonathan Papelbon. Would Boston deserve such a vast sum just for "developing" a star player? Besides, the Seibu team won't even see the cash, nor will Japanese baseball. It will flow to the Seibu Corporation's bottom line.
What we're watching, of course, is international robbery, baseball style. Matsuzaka, who may win 20 games in Boston, is getting ripped off. The Red Sox are spending $17 million a year to get him — almost as much as any pitcher in baseball. That's how highly they evaluate him. Everybody knows Matsuzaka is getting a raw deal, including his super-tough agent Scott Boras. His fair market value is $100 million — the Red Sox just established that fact. Seibu should get some part of it. But $51.1 million?
Unfortunately, nobody can do anything about. That's just the system, one that was worked out years ago after the Yankees' controversial signing of Hideki Irabu. "We agreed with Japanese baseball that we would respect their reserve system if they respected ours," a major league executive said. In other words, don't blow our oligopoly's scam and we won't raid yours?
Several sources in baseball say that some better method than the current "posting" system — in which U.S. teams bid for the right to negotiate with a young player who is not yet a free agent by Japan's standards — should be adopted. If the Matsuzaka negotiations had disintegrated, such reform would have been almost instantaneous because so many people, on both sides of the Pacific, would have been brutally embarrassed or shortchanged. Suddenly, creative ideas would have bloomed.
However, the deal got done. Good for fans, who'll get to see Matsuzaka's "gyro ball." Bad for "posting" reform. The Red Sox, Boras and Matsuzaka endured — and prevailed — in a 30-day negotiation that must have seemed bitter as gall to them all. The U.S. free agent market, especially for pitchers, exploded immediately after the Red Sox "posted" — beating the next-highest offer from the Mets by $17 million. Suddenly, the Red Sox realized they'd have to bid higher than they'd planned or risk looking like they'd negotiated in bad faith, simply duping Matsuzaka and insulting Japan to prevent the Yankees (who posted $32 million) from grabbing a hot young pitcher.
"All's well that ends," Red Sox President Larry Lucchino said.
Boras, who's never had so little leverage, realized that the higher the Red Sox' posting bid, the less money left for his client. He spouted other theories, but knew the reality. As for Matsuzaka, he'd already burned most bridges back to Japan by saying that his lifelong dream was to play in the major leagues. Seibu dreaded that $51.1 million escaping their clutches if no deal was completed.
As for Japanese fans, they reportedly love to see their greatest stars, such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, prove that their skills translate to America. They'll take pride in Matsuzaka's success, which will probably be greater than most U.S. fans expect. But at what point will the exodus of Japanese stars, if it steadily increases, drain the long traditions of the game in Asia, where it is loved as widely and deeply as it is here?
American fans can be forgiven if they shed few tears over Matsuzaka and his paltry $8.5 million a year. Instead, they'll no doubt focus on the good news: A potentially great player has arrived, the Red Sox' rivalry with the Yankees has gotten fresh legs and the hot stove league has finally produced some news that is not depressing. With luck, early in the season Matsuzaka will match up against the newest Yankees starter — that old Yank Andy Pettitte.
Ever since the wonderfully atrocious Cardinals won the World Series, most of the offseason news has been a downer. We've watched as the Giants gave Barry Bonds a comfy San Francisco home, and a $16 million contract, so that he can break Hank Aaron's career home run record in the only park where his "achievement" wouldn't be booed. We've seen salaries exceed all reason. The Red Sox also paid $70 million for five years of the services of injury-prone J.D. Drew. And even the Hall of Fame ballot, always a holiday season subject, was becoming dreary. Mark McGwire's name is on it.
Just two days ago, as the Red Sox' president and general manager — and perhaps the ball boy, too — flew to California to beg Matsuzaka to sign, it seemed that lumps of coal were destined to end up in every stocking. Matsuzaka would head back to his angry Lions. The Red Sox would be accused of treachery. Boras, for once possibly innocent, would be the scapegoat. Instead, the cost of failure simply became too much to bear for all of them. Nobody wanted to be that big a Grinch.
Now, we have Matsuzaka as our offseason gift for the holiday season. In April, we get to unwrap him.