In the grounds crew’s lunch room at Huntington Park, Jerry Coleman erupted in a belly laugh when asked if he was disappointed that Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese pitcher well-known as Dice-K, wouldn’t be doing interviews in there because of last night’s rainout.
Coleman shook his head. He couldn’t say ‘No’ because he was laughing too hard. He still was grinning when he finally got some words out.
“As much as we went through today to get things ready?” he said. “Oh, man … this (rainout) is something. We busted butt to get ready. …”
Coleman was talking about getting the field ready for the Clippers’ home opener, and not about preparing for the 15 visiting Japanese reporters and photographers who would have invaded the grounds crew’s inner sanctum along with members of the local news media.
“It ain’t like we ain’t never done it and had things in here,” Coleman said. “We’ve had high school and college stuff. The tournament (interviews) was held right here.”
But Big Ten and high-school tournaments didn’t bring anyone of the stature of the former Boston Red Sox pitcher, who was signed by the Indians in February. For that reason, last night ranks as one of the more-interesting rainouts in the city’s baseball history, even if it didn’t quite measure up to the event it would have been — and will be again if Dice-K pitches for the Clippers as expected tonight.
A half-hour after the game was postponed at 7:05 p.m., the scheduled start time, the skies cleared and Dice-K went out into right field and tossed with interpreter Jeff Cutler for several minutes. The Japanese media contingent watched from the dugout, and close to 100 fans in right field stuck around to watch him, then erupted in applause when he finished. It didn’t matter that what they had just witnessed was about as exciting as watching their neighbor toss with his 10-year-old son in his backyard.
If Dice-K pitches well — or poorly — his stay in Columbus probably will be brief.
“We have been blessed with some of these guys,” Clippers general manager Ken Schnacke said. “I would say the only other club that maybe rivals or surpasses us is Pawtucket because of the proximity to Boston.”
Maybe, but it’s difficult to imagine any club having as many of these baseball “events” as the Clippers, in part because the flamboyant New York Yankees were the parent club for 28 years.
“(Hideki) Irabu was the biggest,” Schnacke said. “There was all the hoopla of George (Steinbrenner) signing him from Japan and him coming right to Columbus from Japanese baseball. Three starts, over 15,000 people at each one. It was magical.”
One of the Irabu games — on Aug. 1, 1997 — actually drew 16,952, and what seemed at the time like 100 members of the Japanese media.
“Actually, the second-biggest, but it was a one-time deal, was Mark Fidrych. He was trying to make a comeback. He pitched to a full house and got a standing ovation. It was maybe the only time I’ve seen 10,000 give a standing ovation to a visiting player. That was pretty spectacular.”
That was 1982. “The Bird” was a fascinating guy, a pitcher who talked to the ball, talked to himself, aimed the ball like a dart and crouched down and fix cleat marks in the dirt. He won 19 games and the American League Rookie of the Year award for Detroit in 1976, then suffered a torn rotator cuff the next year and was never the same. Still, everybody remembered him — like Dice-K.
The arrivals of Jose Contreras and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez could have been as big but weren’> > > > > > > t, in part because they are not Japanese, but Cuban. A small army of Japanese reporters has a way making a day more memorable.
Clippers historian Joe Santry said he thinks Hideo Nomo’s arrival in 2005 was second only to Irabu’s.
“There were 40 writers,” Santry said. “It was four times as big as this. It was so big we had to do the postgame interview in the (indoor) batting cage.”
But at least the grounds crew got to eat in peace.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.