"His first spring I saw him, that wasn't even fair," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I mean, every time he picked up a ball, man, it was like, 'Poor guy.'"
Francona was manager of the Red Sox six seasons ago, when Matsuzaka was elevated to rock-star status in his first season with Boston. Hundreds of Japanese and American reporters and camera crews swarmed the pitcher that year, testing his mettle as he tried to navigate through the already daunting task of performing on the big league stage.
This time around, Matsuzaka's is a comeback story.
During his first bullpen session with Cleveland, which has brought the pitcher into camp on a Minor League contract, Matsuzaka had more than two dozen reporters monitoring his 35-pitch workout. It was the first step in his bid to win a spot in the Tribe's rotation, and that would be the first step toward showing the baseball world that he can once again be an effective big league starter.
Dice-K wants to prove that he is over the injuries that plagued his last four seasons.
"I've been throwing with pain for a while now," Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler. "So it's going to be important getting used to throwing without pain at first. Getting used to that might take some time. But I believe that without the pain, I should be able to become the pitcher I was in the past."
Such a development would be a godsend for the Indians.
Cleveland has wowed baseball this offseason with a flurry of high-profile additions: Francona, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Brett Myers and Trevor Bauer, among others. Myers -- signed to a one-year contract -- is the only addition immediately in the plans for helping a starting rotation that ended 2012 with a grotesque 5.25 ERA.
There are question marks throughout the entirety of the starting staff.
Can Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson -- a combined 20-32 last season -- bounce back? Can Myers make a smooth transition back to starting after serving exclusively as a reliever last year? Will Carlos Carrasco be effective after missing all of 2012 due to an elbow injury? Can Zach McAllister or Bauer emerge as young impact arms?
"The more questions you have about things," Francona said, "the more chances there are that sometimes the answer is, 'No.' I think that's fair. But, I would say that we would be crazy not to be optimistic."
Cleveland has rolled the dice on Matsuzaka, as well as lefty Scott Kazmir, with Minor League contracts that include non-roster invites. If either shows signs this spring of being remotely close to his former height as big league starters, then the Tribe's rotation suddenly looks different. If it does not work out, the Indians will have lost nothing for trying.
Matsuzaka had an abysmal showing last season, going 1-7 with an 8.28 ERA in 11 outings for the Red Sox, but it was also his first year returning from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said the studies his front office has done on such pitchers indicate that they tend to perform closer to their previous level two years after the operation.
"We've found that a year further removed, that guys do tend to perform a little bit better," Antonetti said. "Specifically, with their command. They're better able to locate their pitches, limit walks and execute their pitches a little bit better."
That was clearly an issue last season for Matsuzaka, who went 0-4 with a 14.36 ERA over his final five starts, which included 15 strikeouts and 10 walks in 15 2/3 innings.
"Last season, coming back from Tommy John," Matsuzaka said, "it was a daily battle figuring out how I felt, how my elbow felt and how my body felt. People around me last season told me [I was] fine, but I was still trying to figure out, within myself, how much my body can do and what condition it was in."
In his prime, Matsuzaka was an elite pitcher in Japan and then a standout arm in the American League.
Matsuzaka went 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA in eight seasons with the Seibu Lions in Japan, convincing the Red Sox to bid $51.1 million for the right to negotiate a contract with the right-hander. After signing a six-year, $52 million pact with Boston, Matsuzaka went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007 en route to a fourth place finish in voting for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
A year later, Dice-K went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 20 starts for Boston and finished fourth in balloting for the AL Cy Young Award.
"He won 33 games in two years," Francona said. "That's a lot of wins."
That was before injuries started to become a factor.
After winning the Most Valuable Player honor for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Matsuzaka experienced weakness in his arm and only logged 12 starts for Boston. He bounced back to make 25 starts in 2010, but then went under the knife after the elbow injury flared again in '11. Over the past four years, the starter went a combined 17-22 with a 5.53 ERA in 296 innings.
By the end of last season, Matsuzaka knew his days in Boston were over.
Now, he is living in a kind of alternate reality.
"Going into camp with no guarantees in the rotation is actually a first-time experience," he said. "It's definitely a new feeling, but I know there's an opportunity, there's a chance. So I'd like to go in as a challenger and show what I can do."
If Matsuzaka makes the Opening Day roster, he will have a base salary of $1.5 million, with another $2.5 million available in incentives. By March 26, the Indians will need to make a decision: release Matsuzaka or pay him a $100,000 bonus if he accepts a Minor League assignment. In the latter scenario, he would be able to opt out of his contract by June 1.
Matsuzaka is not worrying about any of that right now.
"I'm only thinking of making the rotation by Opening Day," he said.
He still has the Red Sox on his mind, too.
Matsuzaka had three offers, but chose the Indians because he wanted to be reunited with Francona and he wanted to pitch in the American League.
"I want to pitch against Boston," he said.