- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

TAMPA, Fla. Hideki Matsui stepped onto the diamond at Legends Field, trailed by some of the scores of Japanese reporters who shadow his every move.
There are about 130 members of the Japanese media at the New York Yankees' spring training camp, and they have chronicled every step and swing Matsui has taken and charted every pitch he has faced since arriving in the United States last month.
No detail is too small to merit major treatment.
Matsui's first cut in batting practice as a Yankee was televised live in Japan at 1:45a.m. The Yankees' first exhibition game was shown live as well, airing at 3:15 in the morning. It was one of seven spring games to be aired live in Japan two more than will be shown in New York.
Today Yankees manager Joe Torre is being pressed on where Matsui will bat in the lineup. Several dozen reporters watch and take notes and photographs as Matsui and his new teammates perform a drill designed to stretch their hamstrings.
General manager Brian Cashman surveys the media horde and says, "We've become like the Beatles the last few years in terms of traveling on the road. We attract a great deal of attention. Various players, their celebrity transcends the sports world. Obviously, Hideki Matsui is one of those players."
What is not obvious is whether the performance of Matsui, whose power at the plate earned him the nickname "Godzilla" in Japan, can match the hype that accompanied his move from the Japanese Central League to the major leagues.
Matsui hit 50 home runs and batted .334 last season in the Central League while playing for the Yomiuri Giants, the Japanese equivalent of the Yankees. He was the most famous athlete in a country that has one major sports league. He departed for the better competition and bigger money of the majors in the offseason, signing a three-year, $21million contract.
Japanese players competing and succeeding in the majors is not news Ichiro Suzuki won the American League MVP award in 2001, his first season but Matsui is different.
He is the first Japanese power hitter to play in the United States, a country in which no single act personifies sports achievement more than the home run. He will play in the hype capital of the United States and for the most storied franchise in baseball, alongside such famous names as Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens. He is media savvy. He endorsed many products in Japan and already has had negotiations with U.S. corporations. He has made small talk on the David Letterman show and with Regis and Kelly.
The intrigue is obvious, but the question remains: How will Matsui fare this season? More like his compatriot Ichiro or his namesake Hideki Irabu, who flamed out after a dazzling start as a Yankee?
"I think he has the ability to adjust to the pitching," said Yankees vice president of baseball operations Gene Michael. "I think he is a good thinker and he seems to have a sound character, but everything's an adjustment coming in."
Matsui elevated expectations further by homering in his second spring training at-bat Feb.27, driving an inside fastball from Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jimmy Anderson through the rain and deep over the right-field fence at Legends Field.
"I'm very happy that everyone's expectation level will be higher, but I just want to go out there and give it my best," Matsui, 28, said through an interpreter afterward.
His teammates liked what they saw.
"It was pretty cool," Jason Giambi said. "Things went crazy. It was fun to watch. He's a great player, no doubt about it. He took a great at-bat and hit a home run."
Said Torre: "He was locked in. He fouled off some tough pitches and then hit a rocket. It didn't take long to get out of here. Very impressive. I was very impressed with his first day."
Orestes Destrade, a former major leaguer who first saw Matsui play in 1993, says he doesn't think of Matsui as a 50-home runs a year player. Still, he projects Matsui to produce about 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a batting average between .275 and .300 numbers that fall in the range of what most prognosticators have projected for Matsui.
In Destrade's best season in the majors, he hit 20 home runs in 153 games. But in five seasons in Japan he became a veritable Sammy Sosa, leading the Central League in home runs in 1990 (42), 1991 (39) and 1992 (41). Other former marginal major league players like Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera have gone to Japan and led the Central League in home runs as well.
Matsui's first season will be one of adjustment, and Destrade said he thinks Matsui's most difficulty will come in learning the pitchers he will face. The 12-team Central League is comprised of two divisions and teams play only within their divisions, so Matsui only had to learn the pitching staffs of five other teams. Now he has to learn the 13 staffs of the American League, plus those of the teams the Yankees will face in interleague play.
Destrade added that the pitching depth in the majors also will come as a shock to Matsui compared to what he was used to.
"Every time you knock out a strong Greg Maddux, you're getting a pretty damn good reliever, then everybody has a good closer," Destrade said. "In Japan, everybody has a [Hideo] Nomo, maybe two, and that's it. The rest of the guys, the caliber drops to Double-A, Triple-A, so you can feast on those guys a little bit.
"So that's the biggest difference, that every day, 162 games, he's going to be like, 'Wow, this [reliever] is good, too.'"
As for the types of pitching Matsui will see, he should prepare to start his swing earlier. Japanese pitchers are big on throwing forkballs, pitches that Nomo, Irabu and Los Angeles' Kazuhisa Ishii all used with varying effectiveness. Matsui will see some of that in the majors, but he'll also see more fastballs and better fastballs than he has seen before.
"I think there are more strong arms here, probably the fastball is better," Michael said. "They have good finesse over there. I haven't been over there to see their league, but from what I've heard and what I gather and see on video, I'd say the arms here are stronger."
Destrade and Michael feel spring training and the first couple months of the regular season could be difficult for Matsui. They say he needs to relax and not get buried at the start. A poor start could prompt New York fans turn on him in a hurry, unlike in Japan; there, he still heard cheers from fans after he struck out in the series against major league players.
Giambi, the Yankees' big free-agent acquisition last offseason, told Matsui what to expect. "That's gone, that's over with," Giambi said last month. "Get used to it. I got booed the first month."
Matsui averaged 33 home runs in 10 seasons in Japan, culminating with last year's 50-homer, 107-RBI MVP campaign for the Giants. But he struggled when he faced major league players in their tour of Japan after last season, hitting .161 in eight games. Not surprisingly, the first question Matsui fielded in his introductory news conference in New York was about his poor showing against the major league stars.
But in New York, he'll be part of a fearsome lineup, one that featured former two-time 30-30 man Raul Mondesi hitting eighth for the first exhibition game. Matsui hit fifth, behind Giambi, and should get adequate protection from a club that put up the most runs in the American League last season.
No matter what he does this season, Matsui will be watched more closely than any other player in the major leagues or, for that matter, in the Japanese Central League.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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