EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 17, 2006

The road to Dice Man

The Bradford Files , Rob Bradford

Editor's note: The following was compiled from information given by various sources around Major League Baseball familiar with the Daisuke Matsuzaka negotiations.

BOSTON - The Red Sox never flinched, and because of it Boston has its man - Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The behind-the-scenes story of securing the services of Japan's biggest baseball-playing export of all-time is fraught with hopes, fears, and perhaps the most expensive bluff in baseball history. At the end of the day, it was Scott Boras who folded his cards, letting the Red Sox walk away with a pitcher an entire offseason plan had been built around.

When the showdown includes the cornerstone for a pitching staff, the possibility of an international incident, and more than $100 million, you can be certain there was more than a little anxiety.

The Red Sox were infatuated with Matsuzaka and the Seibu Lions were going to allow the 26-year-old to be posted shortly after the completion of the team's season. That meant major league teams could submit blind bids for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka for one month.

Boston had been on the trail of the hurler well before most, using the connections and talents of Far East Scouting Director Jon Deeble and Professional and International Scouting Director Craig Shipley to scout Matsuzaka more than any team. By the end of the chase, Deeble had seen the Seibu star more than 60 times and Shipley had seen him almost as often.

The Red Sox had done their due diligence, and were clearly committed to making Matsuzaka their offseason priority, but there was creeping uncertainty. Media reports were estimating that the high posts for Matsuzaka were going to come in between $15-25 million, but Boston had an inkling that those were most likely on the low side.

There were questions on the validity of the process. Word had filtered through baseball that the Yankees had sent an executive to Seibu more than a few times even before the posting process began. MLB rivals wondered if an astronomically high bid might be made with the agreement that the Lions would return a portion of it.

Didn't want repeat of Contreras

The fear was that even the most intelligent bid might not get the job done. One thing was certain: The Red Sox did not want to lose. This wasn't Jose Contreras. In 2002, the Yankees beat the Sox for the services of the Cuban sensation.

Matsuzaka, by all accounts, was much more of a sure thing, not possessing the profile built on the blind faith, which was the case with Contreras.

In the current market, No. 3 starters are getting mega-millions usually reserved for No. 1 starters. Boston knew this was an opportunity that wouldn't be coming around again, especially this offseason when all potential pitching free agents would be long gone by the time the month-long negotiating process was complete.

After an extended period of numbers crunching, the Red Sox determined they'd bid $50 for negotiating rights to Matsuzaka.

But there had to be protection if another team had the same idea, so they hiked it to $51 million. Even within the Red Sox ranks there were some eyebrows raised, especially since no published report had any team surpassing $30 million. But this was a game Boston couldn't afford to lose.

The Magic Number

The final bid was to be put in the hands of principal owner John Henry, thereby protecting what had to be the most secretive of numbers. Never one to pass by a chance for creativity, Henry put in the number "51,111,111.11."

It was an homage to when he had been part of the group which earned the right to purchase the Red Sox. Then he was secretly known as "Investor No. 11."

When the announcement was made that the Red Sox had won the bidding - beating the second-place Mets, who had offered $39 million - astonishment swept throughout baseball.

The Red Sox had noticed that teams that went hard after the rights to Matsuzaka didn't take the usual tact of runners-up. Those were the teams who had come close to Boston's analysis of the pitcher, and had identified him as one of the top five hurlers in the world.

How much is too much?

Even though Boston had gotten halfway down the road to acquiring Matsuzaka, it knew there was a long way to go. An overall budget had been set. How much would the Sox spend between the $51 million to win the posting process and the ace's contract. The Red Sox realized that whatever the notoriously hard to please Boras would be asking for, would be more than they would be willing to pay.

Despite what some thought, winning the posting process but failing to sign the player just to keep him away from the Yankees for a year was never the goal.

Far too much time, money and resources had been put into securing the Matsuzaka. Boston realized that if this chance came and went, there wouldn't be another opportunity to acquire a player of his talents.

For future Japanese greats, the posting process would most likely change, the Yankees probably would up the ante, and Boras would find his much-needed leverage.

Boras digs in

The Red Sox made their first offer of six years for $36 million. The second came in at the same number of years at $48 million. Both predictably were spurned by Boras. What was disturbing was that the agent hadn't offered a formal proposal throughout the first three weeks, only talking in terms of Matsuzaka getting "Roy Oswalt money." Oswalt signed a five-year, $73 million contract extension with the Houston Astros in August of this year.

As the days went by, pinning down Boras became more and more difficult. The Red Sox brass wonder if he was intent on letting Matsuzaka enter free agency in two years or challenge the system to expedite the player's availability to Major League Baseball's free-market system.

Matsuzaka clearly wanted to play in the United States, but nobody was clear on how much information Boras was sharing with him.

When the Red Sox met with the affable pitcher at a dinner early in the negotiations, getting a read on him was difficult because of the obvious pre-meeting coaching by Boras. Since Boston's dinner with Matsuzaka, Boras was masterfully isolating his client as the final days approached. That left the Red Sox no other choice but to get on a plane last Monday and flush out their negotiating counterparts.

Rare Boras slip-up

The Red Sox contingent didn't apprise Boras that it was in California until after their plane had touched down. It was an impromptu appearance that set off two press conferences which would begin to pave the way for Boston to seal the deal.

First came Boras, who spoke outside of his Newport Beach, Calif., offices. This time the agent, who is notorious for picking just the right words, slipped up big-time. In front of three dozen media members, most representing Japanese outlets, Boras said, "In Japan he's known as a national treasure. Here, he will be known as Fort Knox."

This did not go over well in Japan. Boston arranged a conference call from California just more than three hours after Boras had finished. This unusual 10 p.m. (1 a.m. Eastern Time) press conference served three important purposes:

1. It got Boston's message out smack-dab in the middle of the day in Japan; 2. It allowed the team to counter-act Boras' "Fort Knox" comment with a more personal message, one which was embraced in Matsuzaka's homeland; and 3. The world knew that the Sox were making the biggest effort to get a deal done, and that Boras would have to make himself available.

So the two sides met, and the Red Sox even got a proposal from Boras: six years and $66 million. Boston countered with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal of $52 over six seasons.

This occurred as the clock with ticking down to the midnight deadline on Thursday that would have ended the negotiating period and returned Matsuzaka to the Seibu Lions for another year. The Red Sox would have gotten their $51 million posting fee back, but would have lost out on the ace that was the foundation of their offseason.

Poker face paid off

On paper, the deal would cost Boston around $17 million per season including the posting fee. But Boston had figured that, based on additional marketing revenue earned by Seattle and the Yankees for their Japanese stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui (estimated at $5-6 million per season), a sizable portion of the bidding figure could be made up.

Also, the posting price was tax-free, which amounted to another 40 percent or so saved from the $103 million, almost negating the $51-plus million.

Boston's poker face had paid off!

Wednesday, an hour before the Boston reps were to board Henry's plane at John Wayne Airport, Boras called and agreed to the deal (with incentives). It was clear to the Red Sox that they couldn't afford to lose this player, but had still given the impression to the end that they were willing to walk away.

Years of scouting, months of planning, and days of dismissing free agent pitchers had come down to this.

The Red Sox had held their ground, and was paid off in the air ... with Matsuzaka and Boras coming along for the ride back to Boston.