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THE HOT CORNER: The last of Yakult's boys from Brazil

by Jim Allen (Mar 11, 2010)

In 1999, Yakult began an experiment by bringing in inexperienced Brazilians of Japanese descent. Two position players joined the Swallows that first year and a pitcher joined them the following season.

Because of their lack of experience and the limit on the number of foreigners permitted to play at any one time, the trio of outfielder Daniel Matsumoto, infielder Leonardo Sato and pitcher Rodrigo Miyamoto had little chance of ever getting Central League playing time.

Of the three, only Matsumoto made the Swallows' first team roster. Now registered as Yuichi, Matsumoto is 29 and a part-time first baseman entering his 12th season as a pro ballplayer.

When he arrived in Japan, Matsumoto didn't think he'd last so long. The original plan was to learn as much baseball as he could in four years and use that knowledge to teach others back in Brazil.

Although he remains with Yakult, as a career .271 hitter without many walks or home runs, Matsumoto has few illusions about the quality of his contribution to the Swallows' cause.

"I came here aiming for something like this, but I haven't really achieved anything," he told The Hot Corner on Tuesday.

"But they still keep offering me a contract year after year."

Matsumoto, who has batted cleanup for Brazil's national team, is like a lot of players on the fringe, whose overall numbers are hurt by irregular playing time.

When injuries hit the Swallows at the end of last season, Matsumoto got a few starts and turned into a doubles machine, helping to beat the Hanshin Tigers in some pivotal games that pushed Yakult into the playoffs.

"Last year I was used mostly as a pinch-hitter," he said. "The little I accomplished came at the end of the season. I want to be able to start."

In 2007, Matsumoto had his best year. He started 24 times at first base and batted .340 with three homers and one walk in 105 plate appearances. The numbers are OK but not good enough to hold down a first base job in a hitters' park for long.

As a pinch-hitter, he's 15-for-76 (.197) over the past three seasons, compared to his .302 average as a starter.

Matsumoto's struggle for survival in pro ball has been mirrored by the off-field challenge of adapting to a foreign language and culture--something a lot of his countrymen here could relate to.

Japan gives preferential treatment to foreigners of Japanese decent, a condition that made it convenient to employ these foreigners. During the time of the bubble economy, companies and cities welcomed many ethnic Japanese from Brazil and other countries. However, despite their familiar-looking Asian faces and familiar-sounding names, they were still unfamiliar with the language and culture.

When the Swallows' boys from Brazil arrived at the club's minor league facility in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, they were without interpreters to smooth the way. The immersion program worked to some degree, but Matsumoto says his greatest difficulty adjusting to life in Japan has been the communication barrier.

Miyamoto, his Eastern League teammate and Brazilian compatriot, was on the wrong side of that barrier when pain in his elbow forced him to see a doctor.

Barely able to communicate, the pitcher received an injection that he said caused his elbow to swell to the size of a large grape fruit. His pitching never developed, and like Sato, Miyamoto eventually was released by Yakult. While his former teammates have since moved on to corporate league ball, Matsumoto has found a home of sorts at Jingu.

On May 30, 2003, slugging first baseman Roberto Petagine and outfielder Mitsuru Manaka were both out hurt, opening a slot for a foreign player and an outfielder, allowing Matsumoto to make his debut as the Swallows starting right fielder.

His becoming a Japanese citizen in 2004 allowed the Swallows to use him more easily, but it hasn't made much difference.

Matsumoto, married with a daughter here, hasn't been back to Brazil in a few years. Although he misses his homeland, one thing he won't miss this year is soccer's World Cup.

"I'm very excited about it," he said. "Of course, I am supporting Brazil."


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