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DeNA Tempts Matsuzaka Back to Japan to Boost Baseball Challenge

DeNA Tempts Matsuzaka Back to Japan to Boost Baseball Challenge
Daisuke Matsuzaka #18 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City on October 3, 2012. Photographer: Elsa/Getty Images

Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose six-year $52 million contract with the Boston Red Sox has expired, already has an invitation to pitch next season in the Japanese city where he became a high school hero.

DeNA Co.’s Yokohama DeNA BayStars has made an offer to the 32-year-old, according to club president Jun Ikeda. Matsuzaka, who signed with the Red Sox in December 2006, may view a return to the port city as welcome after the past four injury-plagued seasons with Boston in which he compiled a 17-22 record.

“Our message has reached him and we’re making preparations,” Ikeda, 36, said in an interview earlier this month. “We can offer a comprehensive appeal, not just money. There’s the significance of joining a young team and the city’s proximity to Tokyo.”

Acquiring Matsuzaka, who carried Yokohama Senior High School to a national championship in 1998, might also restore the hopes of BayStars fans who have watched the team crash to a five-year run of last-place finishes in Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League.

As the ace of his high school team, Matsuzaka dominated the 1998 summer tournament at Koshien Stadium, pitching a no-hitter in the final game after having earlier thrown more than 400 pitches over three days to win two successive games and save a third.

He went on to an eight-season career and a record of 108-60 with the Seibu Lions of NPB’s Pacific League, winning rookie of the year honors in 1999 and the Sawamura Award as NPB’s best pitcher in 2001, and twice leading the league in Earned Run Average.

There was no response to two e-mails and a phone call to Rachel Viglietta, assistant to Matsuzaka’s agent Scott Boras.

‘Need Time’

DeNA wants the BayStars to top the league within five years and boost season attendance to at least 1.3 million, Ikeda said. Matsuzaka’s presence on the pitching staff might go a long way toward both goals, with his fame helping to attract fans and his Major League Baseball experience bringing veteran leadership.

“We need time to build a foundation,” Ikeda said. “We didn’t have enough time to construct a team this season after buying the ballclub in December.” The 2012 season started March 30.

DeNA, Japan’s biggest social-game operator, bought the team for 9.5 billion yen ($120 million) from Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings Inc. Ikeda, who headed the company’s marketing and communication division, was sent to the club and became the youngest president among Japan’s 12 professional baseball teams.

Losing Favor

Baseball, long Japan’s most popular professional sport, has been losing favor in recent years with the departure of many top players to the U.S. major leagues.

Attendance in the six-team Central League fell 4.2 percent to 11.8 million in 2011, with average attendance per game down to 27,293, from 35,309 in 1992, according to the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization.

Yokohama attracted 1.1 million people, compared with Hanshin Tigers’ 2.9 million and Yomiuri Giants’ 2.72 million, the 2011 data showed.

Since DeNA acquired the BayStars, fans have already seen some benefits. In April, the team sold 300 refundable tickets for unsatisfied customers and in August offered discounted field-seat tickets for fathers with housing loans. The BayStars, who count a gasoline-station operator among their sponsors, also sold tickets for games between Sept. 28 and Oct. 3 that came with a coupon good for three liters of free gasoline if the team lost. The team’s record for those days was 2-3 with one tie.

“DeNA has been trying to change the old Japanese style of baseball team management by using business marketing sources,” said Yasuaki Muto, a professor in the Faculty of Sport Sciences at Waseda University in Tokyo. “It’s been good so far.”

‘Maybe Even Win’

The company’s efforts have paid off with a 5.3 percent rise in attendance this season to 859,207 through Aug. 23, compared with 816,056 in the same period of the 2011 season, according to the team. DeNA said in August that acquiring the BayStars helped boost its first-quarter sales 37 percent to 47.6 billion yen, even as ownership did increase costs.

“By having Matsuzaka at the team, more people would come to the stadium, the team may sell more corporate boxes and maybe even win a few games,” Muto said in an interview. “If the team can use Matsuzaka to attract fans and show that having a baseball team can benefit the owner company in terms of gaining name recognition and trust, I think more and more new companies will begin financing and owning teams.”

The Red Sox haven’t said for sure that they won’t try to re-sign Matsuzaka, who’ll be eligible for free agency after the MLB season concludes.

World Series

He helped the Red Sox win a World Series during his first year in 2007 and then went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in his second season, when he was among the best pitchers in the majors.

Matsuzaka has since seen his career derailed by injuries and ineffectiveness. In 11 starts this year coming back from surgery on his pitching elbow, he had a 1-7 record and an 8.28 ERA for a Red Sox team that finished 69-93, its worst season since 1965.

The BayStars won’t be entirely reliant on Matsuzaka and will seek other trades and draft amateur players to strengthen their roster, Ikeda said.

Next season, the team’s goal is to finish in the top half of the six-team Central League standings, Ikeda said, a result that would put the team into the postseason playoffs for the first since 2001.

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