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Robert Whiting

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Hideki Matsui: Godzilla Vs. the Americas

by Robert Whiting (Apr 28, 2003)

It was finally time to face the cameras. Baseball slugger Hideki Matsui looked at the heaving battery of reporters in the banquet room of Tokyo's plush Imperial Hotel and cleared his throat. Into the breathless silence, he delivered a grim-faced, 40-minute monologue. His words were unrehearsed, and he occasionally stuttered with emotion. He had consulted with scores of family members, friends, teammates, former teachers; he had even asked God for guidance. He had tried to tell himself he needed to stay for the prosperity of Japanese baseball. But in the end, the nine-time All-Star's love for his team, the legendary Yomiuri Giants, had given way to his own self-interest. He was going to become a free agent and go to America to play for the even more legendary New York Yankees. Matsui bowed his head and apologized profusely to team management, teammates and the fans. And then he expressed more contrition for his selfishness. At one point, on the verge of tears, he said: "I hope people don't think I'm a traitor."

Far from it. If anything, Matsui's status as a cultural icon has soared even higher since his decision to abandon Japan for a three-year, $21 million major-league contract. How could a traitor be so popular? In many ways, Matsui, with his unparalleled work ethic and unglamorous ways, is the paragon of a Japanese Everyman, an empathetic hero who heartens Japanese who wonder if their endless, anonymous toil as salarymen or office ladies might ever pay off. For nine years, the 1.86-meter, 95-kilogram slugger labored industriously for the Giants, never missing a game, despite a variety of injuries. Matsui's streak of 1,250 consecutive games played is the second longest in Japan. In a sport riddled with bad boys, the 28-year-old power hitter also remained an unabashedly nice guy, always ready to accommodate his adoring Japanese fans with an autograph. What's more, Matsui swears he has not said a bad word about anyone-even the umpires-since he was 14 years old. He is, in sum, a living monument to the words of Yomiuri founder Matsutaro Shoriki, whose deathbed wish several decades ago was "May the Giants always be strong, and may they always be gentlemen."

So respected is Japan's iron man that when he announced his seismic move, the daily Nikkan Sports noted that this was the first selfish act Matsui had committed in his 28 years. In an era where Japanese heroes tend to be pop stars with spiky hair and equally spiky personalities, here was a man who had consistently put the team before his own considerations. Who could begrudge him his move? Indeed, despite whispers among Yomiuri management that Matsui was a deserter, Matsui's decision was largely applauded by the baseball-viewing public. Their feelings were summed up by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who told TV reporters, "It's sad he won't be at the stadiums in our country any more, but on the other hand, more and more Japanese sportsmen are making their mark on the world stage. I think that is admirable."

Many others have preceded Matsui to the majors. Slap hitter Ichiro Suzuki and a dozen or so Japanese pitchers are shining in North America, but Matsui is the only fully fledged power hitter ever to make the trans-Pacific leap. As the first Japanese to go biceps to biceps with the andro-enhanced musclemen that have come to dominate North American baseball, he may single-handedly erase the image of Japanese as practitioners of second-rate, ping-pong-style baseball. What's more, Matsui is now playing in baseball's Mecca, Yankee Stadium, where legends such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio once prowled the diamond. "It's like a dream come true," says Kozo Abe, a sports writer with the Fujisankei Communications Group. "Baseball fans in Japan had never imagined that something like this could happen."

As the premier slugger for the Yomiuri Giants, Matsui was the leading man on a team that dominates Japanese baseball so completely that it dwarfs even the Yankees' influence in the North American game. The Giants are ruled by the autocratic Tsuneo Watanabe, a silver-haired septuagenarian who presides over the vast media empire that owns the team. A political power broker who has helped Prime Ministers attain office through the support of his newspaper, the Yomiuri, the largest-circulation daily in the world, Watanabe's reach is so considerable that the Giants are the only team whose games are regularly broadcast nationwide on Japanese TV. In contrast, Ichiro's former team, the Orix Blue Wave, only had a couple of games a year televised nationally. "I could hit .400 and still Matsui would get more attention," Ichiro once complained. Perhaps it's no surprise that one in two Japanese is a self-described Giants fan. Critics even argue that the Japanese public has, in essence, been brainwashed by Watanabe's media machine into loving the Giants-and by extension, Matsui.

Before Matsui broke rank and decided to head to the States, Watanabe had openly lashed out at players like Ichiro for abandoning their country-accusing the Orix Blue Wave of "selling out Japan" by dealing Ichiro's rights to Major League Baseball. Watanabe even caustically accused the MLB of invading Japan, comparing the league to Commodore Matthew Perry and his "black ships." So when Matsui turned down a record $64 million, six-year offer from Yomiuri, people began to reassess their opinions of the quiet, mild-mannered hulk. Japan's most obedient salaryman had stood up, and the country was forced to take notice.

As a boy growing up in snowy Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, Matsui was always a head taller than his classmates. Athleticism ran in Matsui's family: his mother may have been so traditional that she walked a half step behind her husband in public, but she also had been a star volleyball player in her school days-the daughter of a kendo expert and younger sister of a third-degree black-belt holder in aikido. Young Matsui was himself a multisport phenom, earning a first-degree black belt in judo and winning a citywide sumo tournament. In primary school, he was so good at yakyu, even when playing against boys several years his senior, that he handicapped himself by batting left-handed, which is how he came to be a port-side hitter.

It was at Seiryo High School in Kanazawa, one of Japan's famous baseball factories, that Matsui was first nicknamed "Godzilla"-a moniker which, at the time, was as much for the severe case of adolescent acne that plagued him as it was for his tape-measure blasts. Legend has it that the young athlete once launched a ball in batting practice that cracked the tiles on the roof of the Seiryo manager's house, nearly 140 meters away. Matsui went on to make four appearances in the hallowed National High School Baseball Championship, his outsized reputation clinched in the final game of the tournament when he was intentionally walked an unheard-of five times. His stoic, impassive behavior during those at bats drew great praise from tournament officials and reporters alike. As one sports writer later put it, "He was just like a samurai faithful to the code of Bushido." Matsui himself credited his restraint to a severe public slapping he had received from his junior high school coach for throwing a bat in anger at an opposing pitcher who had similarly refused to challenge him. "It was a valuable lesson for me," he said. "From that day on, I resolved never to lose control of my emotions in a game again."

Yomiuri chose the famously diligent Matsui, who was known to swing the bat as many as 800 times in special practice sessions, in the first round of the nationally televised 1992 draft. As a pro, Matsui has steadily improved his defensive skills, evolving into an able center fielder who compensates for a less-than-perfect throwing arm and foot speed with an excellent all-around baseball sense. Last season his game evolved to a whole new level as he hit 50 home runs and batted .334 with 107 runs batted in (RBIs), leading the Giants to a successful sweep of the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series, the team's third Japan Championship in the Matsui era. It capped a DiMaggioesque career in which he won three Most Valuable Player awards, three home-run crowns and a batting title, while hitting 322 home runs. He also saw his annual salary rise to nearly $5 million a year, a figure that was then doubled by bonuses and endorsement fees.

Throughout it all, Matsui remained almost unnervingly low-key. He wears no earrings, no rock-star sunglasses, no outlandish hip-hop togs of the type favored by contemporaries like Ichiro. Flash just isn't Matsui's style, even if the conservative Giants hadn't frowned on such outré displays. Instructed to stay in the team dormitory and refrain from dating during the first several years of his career, so as to devote all his concentration solely to baseball, Matsui agreeably complied, without so much as a whimper. Indeed, his only eccentricity, if it can be called that, is his extensive private library of adult videos. His refreshing ability to laugh self-deprecatingly about his porno collection, reporters say, is one reason why fans and even nonfans have taken to him so much. Says former reporter Isao Hirooka: "Hideki just wants to be like ordinary people."

During spring training at Legends Field in Tampa, Florida, though, it is clear that the newest Yankee is definitely not ordinary. Stepping out of the hot Florida sun into the first-base dugout, he wipes his meaty, calloused hands with a towel before offering a handshake. As we settle down for an interview, he pronounces my name three times to make sure he gets it right-and when he finally does, his leathery, pock-marked face breaks into a wide, almost impish grin. He sits close, our knees almost touching, as he turns the tables on me and begins interviewing the interviewer. "Where did you learn Japanese?" he says. "Where did you go to school?" So attentive is he that he fails to notice when Yankee star Derek Jeter strolls by and shouts out a bemused, "Go 'Zilla!"

Throughout it all, a scrum of Japanese reporters sits in wait, eager to record any Matsui moment for the devoted and insatiable Japanese media machine. When a coach walks by and casually pats Matsui on the shoulder, the barrage of cameras and tape recorders explodes into a frenzy. But Matsui remains remarkably placid. "I asked for this life," he says in his coarse baritone. "Nobody forced it on me, and I have a duty to the people who put me here. When I was 14, I promised my father I would always be nice to people and I have done my best to keep that promise. Sure, sometimes, I get upset. I get mad like anybody else. But I try to hold it in." Matsui insists that he loves his fans, he says, because it is the duty of a baseball player to do so. He refuses to charge admission at the Hideki Matsui House of Baseball in his hometown of Neagari, in contrast to the Ichiro Exhibition Room in Nagoya, where a ticket costs $8. "Talking to the press," he says, "and signing autographs as often as I can is my way of fulfilling my obligations as a player." It is a view decidedly out of sync with the vast majority of current major leaguers.

Cynics call Matsui simpleminded, a workhorse without the brainpower to comprehend what all the attention really means. But Matsui responds by saying that he just wants to be a regular guy-albeit one who jokes that he now has five girlfriends at any one time. He drives a Chevy. He eats steak, has an occasional beer and likes to shoot the breeze with the security guards and maintenance personnel. And, of course, he likes to watch his much vaunted porno collection, tapes that he often trades with Japanese reporters. As one Japanese journalist put it, describing Matsui's affinity for such unique Japanese cultural institutions like the no-panties shabu-shabu in Japan, "Matsui is a horny guy. All of us are horny, more or less. But Matsui doesn't attempt to hide the fact." Yet another win for the Japanese Everyman.

Just how well Matsui will do with his new team is still unclear. Afer 15 games, he was batting .308, with 17 RBIs and two homers, including a bases-loaded blast in the Yankee home opener on April 8. His fluid swing and disciplined approach at the plate have led Chicago Cubs slugging star Sammy Sosa to predict that Matsui could hit 25 to 30 home runs a year. Doubters, however, stress that although Ichiro could excel with his Punch-and-Judy style of hitting, being a power hitter in the biggest of leagues is a different proposition: MLB pitchers throw several kilometers per hour faster than those in the Japanese leagues, and they aren't afraid to intimidate a rookie batter by throwing high and inside. In a worrisome precedent last November, Matsui batted a miserable .161 and failed to hit a single home run during eight exhibition games against a team of American All-Stars touring Japan. Tour member Barry Bonds snootily predicted Matsui would be lucky to hit 10 to 15 homers in his first season in America. Hay Group executive and baseball fan Minato Asakawa, who has spent years watching baseball in both Tokyo and New York, said, "I think Matsui will have a hard time, at least in his first year, because he's too Japanese. Ichiro and [Hideo] Nomo are not like Japanese. They are independent types. But Matsui is too humble and too accommodating. He's got to learn to be more aggressive. To succeed in the U.S., you've got to debug your own Japaneseness."

Japan's oft-lurid tabloids have found other things for Matsui to worry about. One series in an evening daily warned that in addition to problems arising from language, food and travel, there were potential dangers from the rising use in the major leagues of steroids, amphetamines and marijuana. Another newspaper article breathlessly noted recent revelations about gays in major-league baseball and stressed the need for Matsui to be vigilant in the Yankee Stadium shower room when he bent over to pick up the soap.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: every conceivable detail of Matsui's season will be recorded by the more than 100 Japanese news reporters and photographers who are giving new meaning to the term blanket coverage, exceeding the attention that even Ichiro received. His first exhibition-game home run earned several pages of analytical articles in each of the leading sports dailies. When Matsui had a root canal, photos of his open mouth were published on the front page of the Sports Nippon paper, and his first visit to a hostess club for Japanese expats in New York was covered by a top Japanese TV network.

Short of Matsui falling completely on his face, the Yankees stand to make a handsome return on their $21 million investment, if early souvenir and ticket sales to Japanese tour groups are any indication. Estimates conclude that Japanese interest in Matsui could generate 500 million sorely needed dollars for the New York economy, about five times what Ichiro did for Seattle. Figures like that do not bode well for the Japanese league, which is hemorrhaging stars: Matsui is number 17 on the list of Japanese players to defect abroad. As TV network NHK announced plans to telecast all 2003 Yankee games, ticket sales for Giants exhibition games dropped 50%.

But in recession-ridden, post-bubble Japan, the cost of losing a marquee player like Hideki Matsui is perhaps more than compensated for by the national pride Japanese feel from his donning the Yankee uniform. "Such people make us recall the confidence we have lost," says prominent sports journalist Midori Masujima, "and make us believe that maybe we can make it through these hard times." That's a higher power than any home run Godzilla hits.


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