Letting go: Durham Bulls beat Columbus Clippers and Daisuke Matsuzaka (again)

Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, July 2, 2013. Photo by Ivan Weiss.

Mostly, baseball only seems melancholy. Sometimes, though, it really is.

Last year, on May 17, Daisuke Matsuzaka came to town on a Triple-A rehab assignment for the Boston Red Sox. Dice-K, as he has long been known, was in the final year of a six-year, fifty-two-million-dollar contract, which he signed in December of 2006. There was much cloak-and-dagger intrigue surrounding the bidding war for his services that autumn. To secure the hotly and secretively contested rights merely to negotiate a contract with Dice-K, the Red Sox paid his Japanese ball club almost as much as they ended up paying Matsuzaka himself, over fifty-one million dollars. The Matsuzaka case was Snowden-level news in the baseball world that off-season, and the young pitcher was for a couple of months (if not longer) the most famous baseball player on earth.

That fame showed in what it netted him beyond his salary, which was in fact rather low for the caliber of pitcher the Red Sox thought they were getting. Here is a list of perks that came with his contract, according to Baseball Prospectus:

Physical and massage therapists, interpreter, personal assistant, 8 1st-class round-trip air tickets/year between Boston and Japan, 1-time moving expenses to $35,000, spring training housing allowance to $25,000, Boston housing allowance to $75,000, use of Lincoln Town Car/similar car, Red Sox player ticket package including 2 field box seats/game, club employee for Japanese media, uniform # 18.

Again, those are just the perks.

Matsuzaka lost last year’s game at the DBAP, but it was quite the spectacle, as he was pitted against fellow countryman and import superstar Hideki Matsui. The ballpark was sold out that night, with an announced attendance of over ten thousand fans. There were something like sixty members of the Japanese media at the game. It was easily the most exciting night of the year at the DBAP, which sorely needed (although we didn’t know it yet) a spike of celebrity to distract us from what would turn out to be a lugubrious, sodden season, even with the constantly revolving door of major-league rehabbers down from Tampa Bay in June.

Speaking of lugubrious and sodden, it has been raining in Durham more or less since January, and virtually nonstop from Sunday through the small hours of Wednesday. It’s been so bad that Bull City Summer had to run an interview with DBAP groundskeeper Scott Strickland in order to do the immense rainfall justice and ease our minds about the state of the field. Yesterday’s game seemed almost sure to be rained out, and about an hour before the scheduled first pitch I was settling in at home for the night. But then, no, they decided to play, after all, and I high-tailed it through the drizzle, arriving in the press box about five minutes before the game started.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was the starter, only this time for the Columbus Clippers, and not because he was on a major-league rehab assignment with Columbus’s parent club, the Cleveland Indians. Dice-K is a minor-leaguer now. The rain was a deterrent to ticket sales, of course, but the announced attendance last night was about a quarter of what it was last year when Matsuzaka pitched against Matsui—and in truth, I doubt there really were the twenty-five hundred fans the Bulls claimed there were in the stands. It was probably the smallest crowd Matsuzaka has ever played to. Now an old thirty-two, with many pitches and surgeries on his once golden right arm, he is no longer news, except when he’s bad news.

The first three batters Matsuzaka faced resulted in two runs and no outs for the Bulls—single, run-scoring double, run-scoring single. Matsuzaka used his soft-tossing wiles (max speed eighty-nine miles an hour) to pick his way through the next few innings with only one run scoring; but the last three batters he faced, in the sixth, also resulted in two runs and no outs: single, two-run home run, and then a walk. The walk was Matsuzaka’s last batter of the night.

The home run that preceded it was hit by Shelley Duncan, one year older than Matsuzaka. Duncan is the Bulls’ big slugger who has recently been hitting like one after a slow start. (Duncan’s mother passed away not long ago, which may have had something to do with it.) His manager, Charlie Montoyo, has recently been hoping that Duncan would pick up some of the cleanup-spot power slack left by Wil Myers, and now Duncan seems to be doing it. Over his last eight games, he has gone 11-27  (.407) with four doubles, two home runs, and eight runs batted in.

Last night, Duncan hit Matsuzaka’s hanging breaking ball over the left field wall. Two innings earlier, Leslie Anderson had hit a hanging breaking ball over the right field wall. When Matsuzaka faced the Bulls last year, Henry Wrigley homered on a hanging breaking ball. Matsuzaka allowed a second homer in that game, too, to Jesus Feliciano. It was Feliciano’s only home run of the season.

That is to say, not much has really changed in a year, except that Matsuzaka is a year older and a minor-leaguer. Last night, he did not look like he would ever be a major-leaguer again.

After the walk (to Anderson) that followed Duncan’s sixth-inning homer, Matsuzaka’s manager took him out. But it was an odd transaction. After handing the ball over to skipper Chris Tremie, Matsuzaka did not head immediately for the dugout, as is customary. Usually, pitchers can’t get off the mound fast enough in this situation, but Matsuzaka stood on the mound all the way up until the moment his replacement met him on it. It was hard to tell if he was doing something honorable in welcoming the guy who would inherit the runner Matsuzaka left on base (and it’s silly anyway to assume “honor” on the part of a Japanese pitcher, as though it’s a cultural given, although he did clap reliever Bryan Price on the back); or if he was angry at his manager for taking him out; or if he just couldn’t bear to leave.

In last year’s game, the winning pitcher against Matsuzaka was Jim Paduch. If you’ve been following the Bulls, or Bull City Summer, you probably know that Atropos recently cut the thread of Paduch’s baseball life. Reassigned to Double-A not long ago, at the withered age of thirty, Paduch retired instead of accepting the assignment. Still, he is a fortunate one. Most ballplayers never make it past A-ball, and they’re well into other careers by the time they’re Paduch’s age. They certainly never get to dream of opposing Daisuke Matsuzaka, let alone to actually beat him at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. You have to toil a long time and be one of the best two or three thousand ballplayers in the world in order to do that. Paduch was one of them.

When it’s all over, you’ve been at it for a decade, fifteen years, twenty years. You’re still right near the majors, but so far from it. Triple-A is the saddest level from which to retire.

“They say athletes die twice,” longtime Bulls first baseman Chris Richard told me when he retired, in 2011. Daisuke Matsuzaka has died more times than that. He died when he left the Japanese Leagues, where he was a superstar, to come to the US to be reborn. He died when he had to have Tommy John surgery, the most serious setback in a disappointing, injury-plagued American career with Boston, not worth the millions they paid him. He died when he had to sign a minor-league deal with Cleveland during the past off-season. And he died a little last night, it seemed, when he trudged slowly, belatedly off the mound in the drizzle to a smattering of polite applause from perhaps a dozen members of what only idiomatic language could have described as a “crowd.”

All of this was somehow made sadder by the presence of Japanese media—not fifty or sixty of them, as there were in 2012 when Dice-K pitched at the DBAP, but three or four. Dutifully they sat and watched and recorded their once-great subject as he opened the game by allowing three straight hits. They watched him manage for a few innings only to fall apart again in the sixth. They popped out for cigarettes as they waited for the game to wind down and finally to end in extra innings. They were just marking time, someone else’s time.

After it was finally over—the Bulls won, walk-off-style, in ten innings, well after Matsuzaka had departed, when the home-run duo of Duncan and Anderson delivered consecutive hits—one of the Japanese reporters followed us downstairs to find Matsuzaka for an interview. We encountered a strange sight in front of the visitors’ clubhouse, into which we directed the Japanese reporter. Outside the Columbus clubhouse door we found Clippers manager Chris Tremie and pitching coach Tony Arnold (along with another older guy I didn’t recognize). They were gathered there, and looked at us as though we were interrupting a meeting. Why they should be having such a meeting outside in the corridor rather than in the privacy of the visiting coaches’ office was a mystery. Were they talking about Matsuzaka? They looked grave, down in the mouth, put upon, like surgeons who have bad news to deliver. The thought crossed my mind that they might be trying to decide on the most tactful way to tell Matsuzaka he’d been released. (He hasn’t been.)

The Japanese reporter continued past them, into the clubhouse, where presumably he found Dice-K and asked him whatever questions you can possibly ask such a man at a time like that, in any language.

As for the local reporters, the four of us kept walking on down the hallway to a pretty upbeat and quite active Bulls locker room. The Bulls were packing for a bizarre one-game “road trip” to Charlotte on Wednesday (it’s to ensure that every team in the league gets a home game on either July 3 or 4, for balanced holiday attendance draw). Big gear bags emblazoned with the Rays logo were all over the place, and players moved quickly and purposefully around the room, loading up their bags, hastily showering, looking ahead to a Wednesday bus ride. There were two new players in the clubhouse: just-signed outfielder Evan Frey and newly promoted reliever C. J. Riefenhauser; fresh blood in the room, adding interest (and curiosity: which was Frey and which Riefenhauser, we wanted to know?).

With the win, the Bulls took three of four games from Columbus and matched their season high-water mark of twenty games over .500 at 53-33. The only guy who had a bad game, reliever Steve Geltz (he gave up three runs in the seventh inning, tying the score and causing extra innings), wasn’t around, so there was nothing to sully the sunny energy, not even the upcoming travel, because the bus doesn’t leave today until noon. Everybody was going to get a full night’s sleep.

Manager Charlie Montoyo was in good spirits, too, uplifted by his team’s late, tenth-inning resurgence to recapture a lost lead. His perilous outfielder gap has been filled by Frey. He was able to rest the overworked Brandon Guyer and Tim Beckham, and his team won anyway. He has numerous fresh relievers despite the extended ten-inning game Tuesday and the previous day’s doubleheader, on Monday. Montoyo brushed aside Geltz’s off-day, noting that Geltz has generally been very good and that he’s going to struggle sometimes. Montoyo added that even his beloved Kirby Yates—who pitched a perfect inning and a third last night to get the win, and hasn’t allowed a run in a month—is going to struggle at some point.

It’s easy to say that sort of thing when your team’s not struggling. All in all, there was really nothing in the room to lament. But Matsuzaka’s decline reminded me that there was something, or rather someone, not in the room to lament. Evan Frey’s locker is the one that was occupied by Will Inman until a couple of days ago. During the recent road trip, I wrote about Inman’s struggles, and it was no surprise to find out that he was released by the Rays organization on returning to Durham. We have reached the letting-go point in the season, as we do every year come late June and into July. Dead weight is discarded, under-performers are overthrown. Your locker becomes someone else’s, your presence not just suspended but obliterated.

Yet if athletes indeed die twice, or more, then surely an awareness of their mortality eventually creeps up on them. Inman was a nice guy, by all accounts, though I never spoke to him for the unfair reason that his numbers were bad (how would you feel if that’s how your interest was judged?). I wish him well and I hope he’s happier now that he’s out from under the pain of watching himself fail. He’s originally from Danville, Virginia, only about an hour from Durham; maybe he drove up there on Monday, in the rain, after he was let go, and slept in his old room.

Now that he’s gone, I see no reason not to report something that happened a week and a half ago, the night before the Bulls left for their road trip to Buffalo and Allentown. While the Bulls were enacting the same road-trip gear-packing ritual we saw last night, Inman was doing more than just packing his bag. He was cleaning out his locker.

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