Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Love Letter to The Monster

I’m a sucker for hype. Those who know me will not be surprised that my fondness of/obsession with Akron’s Finest is almost purely hype-driven. Sure, I watched his high school games televised on ESPN2, I wondered what tattoos were hidden beneath those silly bandage-like adhesives, I weighed the pros and cons of his signing with Nike, Adidas, or Reebok. You’ll have to believe me when I say that going to high school with 1400 other boys provided ample free time.

Is that one of those basketballs that glow in the dark? Because if it is, well, my forthcoming point about incongruity becomes even stronger.

But how much of this had to do with his February 18, 2002 Sports Illustrated feature and cover? I’d like to believe that I was sharp enough to catch wind of LBJ before the rest of the nation did. The truth is, I became a St. Vincent-St. Mary’s fan precisely when a magazine told me to. But it was also the way that LeBron’s debut was presented, and the cover provides a great indication of what I’m talking about—a junior! in high school! who is not only NBA ready, but an instant franchise player?!

Excuse a basketball-related introduction to a mostly baseball-related post, but the only recent (professional) athlete with an interesting enough bandwagon is Daisuke “The Monster” Matsuzaka. “The Monster” is his Japan-given nickname, and is leagues better than the Boston Globe’s “Dice-K.” “The Monster” is just so simple and Japanese and probably lost in translation… it’s perfect.

(Sidebar—I say professional, because JaMarcus Russell came damn close to matching LeBron levels of hype during his 2001-2002 recruitment by LSU. Actually, JaMarcus’s and LeBron’s introductions to my world of hype/interest/fandom/jersey purchase/obsession were on almost exactly the same day. That’s a whole other post.)

What's up, JaMarcus? How far'd you throw the ball today? How many times has Jimbo Fisher text messaged you since lunchtime? Did you apply the clay-and-vinegar mix like I asked you?

After five years, I find myself with the same wallpaper-setting tendencies for Dice-K. With Matsuzaka looking decent-to-superb in all four of his U.S. starts (2-2), and having not written for TANBR in over two weeks, I figured it’s time to assess just what makes these products of hype so appealing.

Just as LeBron was poised to become an instant all-star before legally seeing Bad Boys, just as JaMarcus was rumored to throw the football endzone-to-endzone before his high school coach made him stop, The Monster has warmed up for games in the past by throwing the ball three hundred feet. Then pitched over 250 pitches in one game. And then refused to apply ice to his arm.

I mean, I wouldn't put it past Matt Millen to draft Dice-K with the second pick Saturday.

See, with this handful of athletes, it’s less about substance and more about incongruity. And the more extreme their tall tales are, the better. For example, if JaMarcus had grown to 6’5” by the time he was eight (not out of the realm of possibility) and I had learned about it, well, I probably wouldn’t have taken his head-scratching fumbles as sorely. If LeBron’s high school had beaten a Catholic League opponent 112-8, I couldn’t care less if he coasted for two thirds of this season. And for The Monster, these stories just keep flooding in. Per Wikipedia, just to make Tank happy (and I don’t necessarily feel like scouring mom-and-pop Japanese baseball sites right now):

“In the quarterfinals of that year's Summer Koshien, Matsuzaka threw 250 pitches in 17 innings in a win over powerhouse PL Gakuen. The next day, trailing by six runs during an 0-6 score at the end of the top of the eighth inning, the team miraculously won the game by scoring 7 runs in the last two innings (four in the eighth and three in the ninth). In that game he started in left field, but came in as a relief in the ninth inning to record a win. In the final, he threw a no-hitter, the second ever in a final.”

It gets better with Matsuzaka, though. He’s the first such foreign athlete that I’ve embraced, and the language barrier definitely adds another facet of mystery to his hype legacy. Hell, the language barrier is definitely adding an element of surprise for Francona and crew when Daisuke takes the mound.

Dice-K cares little about your summertime traditions, hot dogs, cracks of the bat, and Cracker Jacks.

Yao Ming experienced a similar situation in 2002, with the transition to American sports and subsequent hype, but his initial facial expressions upon arriving in America were vastly different that Matsuzaka’s. Yao always appeared a little too nervous, self-conscious, and eager to learn English for me to throw a fifty million dollar contract his way. Remember that Apple commercial with Verne Troyer? I’m typing awkwardly just thinking about it, and this was supposed to become the most dominant big man in the western conference?

My favorite part about Matsuzaka isn’t necessarily his arm strength or superhuman training regimen—it’s the fact that he doesn’t give a shit about anything. Sure, I’ll show up to your “spring training,” though my arm needs no training and could probably last 150 pitches on consecutive days. Better than that, I’ll show up a little overweight.

How can you not love this guy? It looks as if he's able to throw over 250 pitches without even actively wanting to.

Don’t get me wrong—my fondness of Daisuke has a lot to do with his highest-bidding team. His hard, intimidating, mid-pitch glare would become a shit-eating grin if he were in pinstripes. I just love the guy’s expression though. One part babyface, one part hardness, two parts confident, and about seven parts let-me-try-my-luck-at-your-‘national-pastime.’ He’s contemptuous, pretentious, and detached. He’s everything you want in a rotation starter for a playoff team in a fiery city. He’s got his own fucking pitch, which has received so much press and so few appearances in real-time games, even I, hype-hungry as ever, am skeptical about it. He’s got his own sidekick in translator Tak Sato, always seen side-by-side at press conferences and in the dugout—sort of the Robin to Dice-K’s Batman. And just when he reaches superhuman levels of hype, he coolly reminds us that, although we can’t communicate with him, and although he’ll probably pitch till he’s 55, he’s still mortal:

“Maybe I'm supposed to say that [signing with Boston] is the most exciting, but to be honest, my marriage comes first, then the birth of my child ... This is the most exciting after those things.”

Now if only Chris Berman had the right nickname for him… let’s see Daisuke… Dice-K… some played 80s reference… Andrew Dice-K. Equilibrium has been reached.

- P.T.

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