BOSTON (AP) – The $51.11 million the Red Sox offered to pay for the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka was enough to get the Japanese ace across the Pacific Ocean.

It took that much again, and a little more, to fly him the rest of the way to Boston.

Bridging the economic gap in the most expensive cultural exchange in baseball history, the Red Sox neared an agreement Wednesday with Matsuzaka on a six-year contract that would guarantee him a minimum of $52 million. With $100 million on the table, the two sides flew back to Boston on Red Sox owner John Henry’s private plane.

“You should assume a deal is close or done,” an official with knowledge of the negotiations said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement had been made.

The Red Sox won the bidding for Matsuzaka’s rights last month, promising to pay the Seibu Lions $51.11 million if they let him leave for the major leagues. But they had just 30 days – until midnight EST Thursday – to negotiate a contract with superagent Scott Boras or the right-hander would return to Japan and Boston would keep its money.

When talks stalled, the Red Sox brass flew uninvited to Boras’ turf in Southern California on Monday to meet with him in person. They said they had to leave Wednesday morning, with or without an agreement; Boras has said Matsuzaka would not go to Boston for a physical unless the sides had the makings of a deal.

So when Henry’s plane took off – with Matsuzaka aboard – from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., Boston radio stations and Web sites tracked its path as religiously as they had been counting down the minutes to the deadline. After a 4-hour, 43-minute flight, the Dassault Mystere 900 tri-jet with a Red Sox logo on the tail landed in a light rain at Hanscom Field in suburban Bedford at 5:16 p.m.

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, president Larry Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein were seen coming off the plane with Matsuzaka and Boras. Matsuzaka exchanged handshakes and bows with some among the Red Sox welcoming party before getting into an SUV.

There were several dozen fans to greet him and about the same number of reporters, many of them Japanese. A radio station distributed signs that pictured two dice and a K – Matsuzaka’s first name is pronounced “Dice-K” – and there

As he left the airport for a physical at Massachusetts General Hospital, Matsuzaka rolled down his window and appeared surprised by the gathering. He waved and smiled when he stopped briefly alongside Kim Miner and Rebecca Powell, 17-year-olds from nearby Concord who were holding a sign that said, “WELCOME HOME DAISUKE.”

“I was so psyched,” Miner said. “Because there was a small crowd, we got to see him close.”

Mark Fairweather, a fan from Lincoln, had his 8-year-old son, Nick, on his shoulders.

“We thought we’d just come out here to take a look at him,” the elder Fairweather said. “I’m glad they’re getting some good pitching.”

Although the details were still being worked on, people on both sides said the agreement would include $8 million in escalators that would bring the total to $60 million over six years. If the deal falls through, Matsuzaka’s rights remain with the Lions and he cannot be offered to major league teams again until next November; he is not eligible to become a free agent in Japan until after the 2008 season.

Matsuzaka has a 108-60 record in Japan with a 2.95 ERA and 1,355 strikeouts in 204 games. He was MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic last March, won by Japan.

Negotiations had slowed because the Red Sox looked at the posting fee and the eventual contract as a $103 million payout for one pitcher. “That magnitude is certainly the right ballpark for the commitment of the ballclub,” Epstein had said.

Boras focused instead on only the money going to his client. “Free agent pitchers who are 26 and have Matsuzaka-like ability receive salaries in excess of $100 million over five or six years in free agency,” he said Monday night.

The Red Sox complained that Boras had not countered their original offer and questioned whether Matsuzaka, who had already said goodbye to his Japanese team, was being consulted.

“We’re on Scott Boras’ doorstep because he hasn’t negotiated with us thus far,” Henry said during a conference call early Tuesday, “and we’re taking the fight directly to him, the fight to have a negotiation here.”

AP Sports Writers Ronald Blum in New York and Howard Ulman in Boston, and AP Freelance Writers Ken Powtak in Bedford and Joe Resnick in Newport Beach contributed to this report.

AP-ES-12-13-06 2107EST

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