Thursday, May 24, 2007

With a New Sock, Red Sox Add Distance

By DAVID PICKER, New York Times, May 24, 2007

The symbol of the 2004 Red Sox was the sock that Curt Schilling bloodied while he conquered the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals that October on the way to Boston’s first World Series championship in 86 seasons.

Now the Red Sox are riding high again, far ahead of the Yankees in the American League East, and, appropriately enough, a sock is the team symbol again. Only this time it is a five-toed version popularized by their two new Japanese pitchers — Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima.

The socks, which fit like a glove with each toe individually encased, were met with curiosity in Boston’s clubhouse during spring training. Before long, Matsuzaka began offering pairs to anyone who expressed an interest. And a number of players did, including Mike Lowell, Álex Cora and Doug Mirabelli, who are now playing in them regularly. Looking for a reason for Boston’s great start to the season? Maybe it is the socks.

“At first they feel kind of weird,” Mirabelli said. “They got some sticky things on the bottom, like little kids would have on the bottom of their socks. But you get used to them.”

The socks that Matsuzaka wears are covered with hundreds of tiny rubbery beads on the sole for better traction. As for Okajima, the individual toe slots help with his balance because he can firmly grip each toe. he said.

Before the Red Sox played the Yankees on Monday, Matsuzaka ran in the outfield wearing his five-toed socks and no cleats. The pitching coach, John Farrell, could not figure out why, so he asked Matsuzaka’s interpreter, Masa Hoshino, for an explanation.

“He likes the feel of the grass on his feet,” Hoshino said with a smile.

Matsuzaka later said that he runs in socks, without cleats, to improve his balance and footwork.

“They give me a better feel and perception of the ground, a sensitivity similar to bare feet,” Matsuzaka said through Hoshino.

Matsuzaka has been wearing the five-toed socks since he signed his first professional contract in 1999, with the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Pacific League. The socks are popular among professional baseball players in Japan, and versions of them are also common among the general public in Japan. Okajima, who wears only five-toed socks while playing baseball, said they are available in Japanese department stores.

Joe Cochran, who has been Boston’s equipment and home clubhouse manager since 1992, said he had never seen five-toed socks before this season. Mirabelli, however, recalled seeing Hideo Nomo of Japan wear them when they both played for the Red Sox in 2001. Before each game, Cochran has a clubhouse attendant place a pair of red socks, no extra toes, in each player’s locker. The Red Sox, like every major league team, provide regular socks to players, Cochran said. Players who prefer five-toed socks must make their own arrangements, he added.

So far, Matsuzaka appears to be the main distributor of five-toed socks in Boston’s clubhouse. His socks are individually made and shipped to him from Japan by his sponsor, Nike. Okajima’s socks are supplied by his sponsor, Rawlings.

A Nike spokesman based in Beaverton, Ore., said that Matsuzaka had requested at least a few dozen pairs of socks in various sizes this season, presumably to accommodate his interested teammates.

According to Susan Goodenow, a spokeswoman for Major League Baseball, the licenses for official caps, uniforms, undergarments and socks for all 30 teams are held by four sports apparel companies. But players can veer from the official socks, made by Twin City Knitting, and wear a different version as long as the color of the socks conforms to what the team wears and the socks have no visible logos that would contrast with the official sponsor, Goodenow said.

Cora had a pair of five-toed socks (red with gray tips) hanging in his locker before Tuesday’s game against the Yankees. Each sock included a Nike swoosh that was calf-high and would have been covered by his uniform.

The Yankees are not completely sockless in this battle. Hideki Matsui has been wearing five-toed socks for more than 10 years and gets his supply from his sponsor, Mizuno. He has introduced them from time to time to some of his teammates, including Gary Sheffield, now with the Detroit Tigers, and Jason Giambi.

“Sheff was very curious about it,” Matsui said through an interpreter in the Yankees’ clubhouse Tuesday. “He tried some on, and he actually liked it. He still wears it. But looking around here, I don’t see anybody wearing it now.”

Matsui played 10 seasons in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants, who have been known to make their players run in the sand during spring training while wearing tabi socks, which are traditional Japanese socks that separate the big toe from the other toes.
Matsuzaka was just getting to know his teammates when he began sharing his socks. So his inspiration was probably to foster camaraderie.

Still, his own catcher is a holdout. Jason Varitek said he has never worn five-toed socks.

“I don’t know why,” Varitek said with a shrug. “I just don’t like the toes separated.” But like every other player on the Red Sox, he is happy with the distance between New York and Boston in the standings, currently measured by five toes and 10 ½ games.


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