SAN DIEGO — Three years ago, a quirky right-hander little known outside the Orient flew into San Diego, pitched Japan to the World Baseball Classic title and became the biggest import from Asia since Sony.
But if you think Daisuke Matsuzaka was special, wait until you see the upgrade.
Yu Darvish is younger, taller, throws harder, locates better and has seven devastating pitches that would instantly make him a top-of-the-rotation major league starter.
"I could write my scouting report in one word," said a scout from a National League team who didn't want other organizations to know he was scouting the pitcher. "Stud."
Problem is, Darvish, who will start for Japan against rival South Korea tonight in a second-round game of the WBC in San Diego, says he has no intention of playing in the United States any time soon. And that has U.S. baseball people frustrated.
"He's outstanding," Florida Marlins scout Orrin Freeman said. "He's got velocity. He's got pinpoint control. Very good motion. Looks like he'll be able to eat up innings.
"He's close to a finished product at 22."
You'll get no argument from Japan, where Darvish is 48-19 with a 2.33 earned-run average in four seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters of Sapporo. Last summer, in a season interrupted by the Olympics, he was 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings.
And if that's not enough, he has thrown complete games in nearly a third of his starts and won two consecutive gold gloves.
"I think he can be the best in the world," his former manager, Trey Hillman, told an Asian newspaper. And Hillman, who now manages the Kansas City Royals, hasn't even seen Darvish in more than a year.
Darvish would be a compelling figure even if he wasn't 6 feet 5 and able to throw a baseball more than 95 mph.
His Japanese mother met his Iranian businessman father at Eckerd College in Florida, where the father played soccer. Darvish is known in his father's homeland by the Arabic name Farid, which means unique.
He fits the bill. Several major league teams, including the Dodgers and Angels, started watching him even before he entered high school. By the time he was a senior at Tohoku High, the same school that produced former Dodgers All-Star Takashi Saito, he was on every team's radar.
But when Nippon Ham took him with the first pick in the 2004 Japanese draft, Darvish signed with them before finishing school. He still hadn't graduated when he was back in the news again, this time for smoking in a gambling hall. Because he was not of legal age to smoke or gamble, Darvish was suspended from the team and school, eventually receiving his diploma in the mail.
Two years later, he posed nude for a magazine.
In Japan, that made Darvish something of a bad boy, a reputation he added to by marrying actress Saeko Dokyu shortly after telling a stadium full of fans that his girlfriend of three months was pregnant.
"From what I hear, he's a rock star," said one of the 20 scouts who saw Darvish pitch two scoreless innings in an exhibition win over the Chicago Cubs last week. After that outing, Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano said Darvish has "an aura on the mound."
But for now, that aura is staying in Japan. Darvish won't be a free agent until at least 2014 -- though he could be "posted" this winter, a procedure that allows big league clubs seeking to negotiate with Japanese players to pay his team for that right.
The Boston Red Sox paid Seibu more than $51.1 million to talk to Matsuzaka after the 2006 WBC, then invested another $52 million over six years to sign the pitcher. Given that the younger, more athletic Darvish would almost certainly surpass those numbers if Nippon Ham posted him, the economics may prove too much for either the club or the pitcher to ignore.
Darvish will make a relatively paltry $2.9 million this season, yet publicly he has remained coy, telling a crowd in Japan four months ago that he isn't dreaming of major league baseball, instead setting a goal of 200 wins at home.
That's left some on this side of the Pacific wondering.
"He may never come," said Acey Kohrogi, the Dodgers' director of Asian operations. "That's something that's always going to be a question mark when you're talking about players from Japan."