There's a good chance the commuter trains were a little less crowded in Tokyo today. It was morning rush hour (8:11 a.m.) in the Japanese capital when Ichiro stepped to the plate to face Daisuke Matsuzaka at 7:11 p.m. at Fenway Park last night.
This was Japanese baseball's version of Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain, and the ancient Boston ballyard was awash in camera flashes when the Seattle outfielder looked at strike one from the $103 million Red Sox rookie sensation.
It was the magic matchup: the face that launched a thousand Nikons vs. the guy so good he only needs one name. It was one small step for the Red Sox and Mariners -- one giant leap for Japanese baseball.
Things didn't exactly work out as planned, of course. By the time folks put away their cameras, Dice-K was in the shower after seven innings and we were wondering if his ballyhooed Fenway debut might become famous because of a no-hitter pitched by the other guy.
That's right, boys and girls. The inconvenient truth of the matter is that Dice-K was outpitched by Seattle's 21-year-old Felix Hernandez on this historic night. Matsuzaka surrendered eight hard hits and three earned runs in his seven frames and lost, 3-0. Hernandez's no-hit bid was broken up by J.D. Drew's clean single to center leading off the bottom of the eighth. It turned out to be Boston's only hit.
"After the game, the players, manager, and coaches came up to me and told me I did a good job," Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. " . . . I felt I had to hold them to as few runs as possible and I'm a little disappointed that I wasn't able to do that today."
"He's going to give up runs," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "These guys are humans and they make mistakes. I think he's going to be OK."
This must have been the most-covered April weeknight non-opening game in baseball history. The Red Sox issued 350 press credentials, including 160 to members of the Japanese media. It was, in the words of one reporter, the million cameramen march.
Dice-K drove himself to the ballpark and arrived in a brown Mercedes sedan at 2:21 p.m. A chef was dispatched to prepare his pregame meal of udon noodles and rice balls. He read a magazine in front of his locker as players dressed for the pregame workout. Countryman/teammate Hideki Okajima stopped by and spoke with him briefly, but most of the Sox left him alone.
Just after 4 p.m., Francona said he didn't know if his pitcher had yet arrived for work. No worries, however.
"Hey, I've had Pedro [the notoriously late Pedro Martínez]," Francona said. "As long as he [Matsuzaka] is here for the first pitch."
Asked about communicating with his new ace, Francona said, 'I learned to say 'eeyo'. I think it means 'good job.' "
Hearing Francona's Japanese, a reporter from Japan chuckled and said, "You are close," then made the proper pronunciation.
Happy to be corrected, Francona said, "No wonder he looks at me like I'm a dumb ass."
As always, Francona was asked if he'd ever seen a media circus like this one, and as always, he cited his days managing Michael Jordan.
"We had a game in Zebulon, North Carolina," said Francona. "It was a big event, Michael returning to North Carolina. I think Ted Koppel was there. I mean, in those days our team was just happy to be on the radio."
Dice-K was applauded and photographed as he went to the bullpen, warmed up, and returned to the dugout. Always wanting to throw more, Matsuzaka popped out of the dugout to play catch with Kevin Youkilis, while bench coaches Brad Mills and John McLaren brought the lineup cards to the umpires. All 36,630 fans stood when Ichiro stepped into the batter's box.
The first pitch was a called strike.
"It wasn't easy to throw with all the flashbulbs going off," said Matsuzaka. "But I was glad I got a strike."
He worked the count to 3 and 2. The payoff pitch was a 94-mile-per-hour heater that Ichiro grounded back to the mound. Dice-K made a nice snag and throw, and it was already being written in Japanese history books.
"He's a hitter I've wanted to face since his days in Japan," said Dice-K. "So compared to the other batters, I may have been more conscious of him."
The Mariners dusted Matsuzaka up for a pair of hits and a run in the second. Jose Guillen started the trouble (not the first time anyone has typed those words) by swinging at a 3-and-0 cookie and almost knocking the Wall down with a line drive to left. Manny Ramírez made a nifty decoy and throw and held Guillen to single. Guillen's laser would have been a homer in most ballparks. Kenji Johjima followed with a double into the corner in left. Guillen held at third, then scored on a sacrifice fly to left by Yuniesky Betancourt.
In the fourth, Dice-K meted out a little old-fashioned American frontier justice when he drilled Guillen with a 1-and-0 pitch with two outs and nobody aboard. Matsuzaka no doubt has a new friend in Brendan Donnelly.
Dice-K fanned Ichiro (swinging) on a split-fingered fastball in the fifth, but fell behind, 3 and 0, when Adrian Beltre and Jose Vidro crunched back-to-back RBI hits with two outs. Given the way Hernandez was throwing, it was not looking good for Dice-K and the local nine.
Matsuzaka came up and in on Ichiro in the seventh, then got him to ground into a force play. When he surrendered a one-out walk to Beltre, Sox pitching coach John Farrell came out for a visit. Dice-K finished his work for the night by covering first and making a great pick on a 3-6-1 double play by Vidro.
"It was a night when there was no room for error," said Francona. "I thought he left a couple of breaking balls up in the zone and he paid for it. We didn't give up that much, but this was a night when one was too much."
There. Dice-K is not going to go 34-0. He's not going to win any games when the Sox don't score a run. But the first game is behind him. And the first Fenway game is behind him. And Ichiro is behind him. Maybe it'll seem almost like a normal game next time he pitches.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.