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For Matsuzaka, uniform number is no small matter

08.25.10 at 1:19 am ET
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Daisuke Matsuzaka's contract states that he will receive the No. 18. (AP)

Even before Johnny Damon’s declaration that he intended to exercise his right to veto a deal to Boston, it was clear that he would not be wearing No. 18 for the Red Sox again this year.

It is not just that Daisuke Matsuzaka wears Damon’s old uniform. The number actually harbors tremendous significance for the member of the Red Sox rotation, to the point where his right to wear it was written into the six-year, $52 million deal he signed with the Sox in December 2006.*

“Growing up, I played baseball with the goal of one day wearing number 18 as a professional ballplayer,” Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino yesterday. “When I signed with the Red Sox, I wanted to keep wearing the same number I had always worn, and the number was available. I’ve never worn another number since I went pro, even in international competition.

“In Japan, the ace gets to wear number 18,” he continued. “I know that 18 isn’t considered an ‘ace number’ here in the U.S., but for me personally, I wear the number with pride, and I always try to push myself to be a pitcher worthy of the number.”

The roots of “18” as an “ace number” in Japan, Matsuzaka explained, stem from the legendary Yomiuri Giants. From 1965-73, the Giants won nine straight championships, spearheaded by legendary hitters Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh.

But during that time, Tsuneo Horiuchi – who debuted in 1966 – was the dominant mound presence for the Giants. He won the Sawamura Award (recognizing the best pitcher in the NPB) twice during the dynasty. He was known for his irreverence and willingness to challenge his elders, and helped to make the number 18 that he wore iconic.

But Matsuzaka was too young to see Horiuchi pitch. Instead, it was Horiuchi’s successor as the Giants ace who captivated the young Matsuzaka.

“When I was growing up, Masumi Kuwata, who later pitched for Pittsburgh, wore number 18 as the Giants’ ace,” Matsuzaka explained. “As I watched him, it became my goal to wear 18 if I ever became a professional baseball player.”

Kuwata was the Giants ace for much of his 20-year career in the NPB, and he inherited the No. 18. The number is treated with reverence.

“Right now, for example, no one in the Giants’ roster is wearing number 18, because no one is considered worthy,” said Matsuzaka. “That’s how much weight the number has in Japan.”

Insofar as it was a lifelong goal for Matsuzaka to wear the number, and he has spent his entire professional career trying to honor its tradition, it is nearly impossible to imagine him sacrificing it for anyone, including a former Sox icon. That is no slight against Damon, of course.

“I think he’s an aggressive hitter and a great baseball player,” Matsuzaka said of Damon.

But a No. 18? Not on a team on which Matsuzaka can carry on the torch of a number that carries such great symbolism, not just for his personal career but also for his country.

* – While Matsuzaka’s contract clause entitling him to a uniform number is rare, it is not unique. Barry Zito‘s deal with the Giants entitles him to the number 75, while Kenshin Kawakami‘s deal with the Braves guaranteed him the number 11.

Read More: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Johnny Damon, masumi kuwata, tsuneo horiuchi
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