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Idol chatter

Matsuzaka path follows Kuwata's -- to a point

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Masumi Kuwata laughed when a visitor asked whether either of his dinner companions that evening, Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Okajima, would be picking up the tab.

"How did you know we were having dinner?" he said. "They called me a couple of days ago and said they wanted to go out with me.

"But no, I will pay, because it's the Japanese style. The older player pays. And they are like my younger brothers, you know."

Kuwata, who turns 39 April 1, is in camp with the Pittsburgh Pirates on a minor league contract, having turned down a similar offer from the Red Sox in December. He was watching intently yesterday afternoon when Matsuzaka limited the Pirates to one hit in 5 2/3 innings, retired 15 of 16 batters in one stretch, and struck out seven in the Red Sox' 7-3 victory.

"When I see him," Kuwata said, making no attempt to hide his wistfulness, "I see me."

Before there was Dice-K, there was Kuwata. Like Matsuzaka, Kuwata came to prominence in the Koshien, the national high school baseball tournament. Matsuzaka became famous for throwing a 17-inning complete game; it came against P.L. Gakuen, the high school Kuwata pitched to two Koshien championships, setting a post-World War II record by winning 20 games in the tournament over the course of his high school career.

Kuwata was drafted No. 1 in 1986 by the Yomiuri Giants, the Yankees of Japan, and in 1988 became the youngest pitcher to start on Opening Day. He pitched 20 seasons for the Giants, winning 173 games and finishing with just under 2,000 strikeouts. Both of those numbers would be much higher if he had not hurt his elbow while fielding a bunt in the mid-'90s.

Okajima was a teammate on the Giants. To Matsuzaka, Kuwata was an idol.

"When he won the Koshien," Kuwata said, "he said he wanted to see me."

That was their first meeting. With Matsuzaka following a similar career arc in Japan, becoming a big winner for Seibu, Kuwata was struck by the similarities. Matsuzaka even took to wearing Kuwata's No. 18, in tribute to him.

"He became famous in high school," Kuwata said. "He was famous as a professional. The media followed him everywhere he pitches, 100, 200 people, just like me."

They also shared a similar dream, Kuwata said.

"I had the dream since I was 20 years old," he said. "I tried to play in the States. I couldn't. I tried three or four times, but my team wouldn't let me go."

For Kuwata, it is now a dream deferred, and perhaps one that will end unhappily. He's won just nine games in the last four years, and it's uncertain whether he'll make the Pirates coming out of camp.

But it gives him great pleasure, he said, to see Matsuzaka live out what might have been for him. The two have become friends. They play golf together in the offseason in Japan, and have dinner when their schedules allow.

"He's got a big contract, you know?" Kuwata said. "I know he's pressured. I told him, 'Just be yourself. Just do it. Don't think about anything. Just focus on baseball. If you succeed or fail, don't think about that. Just play baseball.' "

Kuwata believes his friend will succeed, because of something else they share: toshi. Heart. A fighting spirit.

"He has toshi," Kuwata said. "We pitch from the heart, yes. That's why the fans love him, because he pitches from the heart. I did, too, you know?

"I think there are many pitchers in Japan who could pitch here, but the most important thing is toshi. Many pitchers try, but they don't have toshi. And without that, you can't succeed."

While there has been some concern that Matsuzaka may have trouble adjusting to the five-man rotation after pitching once every six days in Japan, Kuwata sees it as a positive.

"It's good for him," he said. "In Japan, he always pitched seven or eight innings. He threw 150 pitches, sometimes 170. I did, too. I pitched almost 120 complete games. Here there is a pitch count. It will be good for him."

Kuwata has some fear about the effect all the high pitch counts already have had on Matsuzaka, though Tom Verducci's terrific piece in Sports Illustrated this week contends that when the Sox examined the MRIs on Matsuzaka's arm, they were clean.

"I am concerned about [the high pitch counts]," Kuwata said. "But I tell him all the time, 'Follow the American system.' Maybe there will be times he says, 'I want to pitch one more inning.' I say, 'Daisuke, you follow the American style.' "

Kuwata smiled when it was suggested Matsuzaka understands more English than he lets on.

"He has an interpreter, no?" Kuwata said. "Me, I don't have a translator.

"I get very nervous still when I speak English."

But he had no trouble conveying his feelings for Matsuzaka.

"Be good to him, please," he said. "Take care of him."

Gordon Edes can be reached at