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Gentle Giant’s Switch to the Majors Crushes Japanese

Times Staff Writer

Oh no! Now it’s goodbye, Godzilla.

Yomiuri Giants’ outfielder Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui’s all but certain departure for the major leagues has hit this country where it hurts.

Bank failures, eroding national confidence and a comatose economy are bad enough without piling on the loss of Japan’s greatest active baseball player.

Sure, in bolting as a free agent, Matsui, 28, follows in the footsteps of several other top players. But he’s always been in a different category, the glittering jewel in Japanese baseball’s crown, a near national icon with humility to boot.

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Earlier exports played for second-rate teams and were often mavericks, hardly a compliment in Japan. Matsui, on the other hand, has been a loyal Yomiuri man in a nation where lifetime employment with one company still resonates.

And he enjoyed everything Japan had to offer -- wealth, fame and a top spot on the Yomiuri Giants, the dominant team in Japanese baseball long used to attracting the best and getting its way. Yet, Matsui chose another way.

Even though it’s a way the gentle giant himself doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with.

At a recent news conference announcing his departure from the Giants, Matsui was so nervous about letting down his club and fans that he wrote his talking points in pen on his hands. He apologized profusely, thanked the media, even called himself a traitor.

It was classic Matsui, a considerate man with a large, pock-marked face known for making even junior players feel needed, for worrying about children, devoting extra time to fans, picking up the tab for teammates.

No doubt, he will be missed.

“I feel sad because he’s Japan’s marquee player and the game here doesn’t hold enough for him,” said Akira Hasuoka, 43, a company manager in Tokyo.

As for where he is likely to wind up, no surprise there. The New York Yankees have the left-handed hitting slugger in their sights. Top guns from the Yankee front office, including President Randy Levine and General Manager Brian Cashman, are expected to arrive in Japan today. They will be trying to clinch a multiyear deal that will reportedly pay Matsui in the neighborhood of $8 million a season.

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Given Matsui’s personality, however, some worry a coming-out debut in New York could be a rather rude awakening after the more sheltered world of Japanese baseball.

Ichiro Suzuki, the American League’s most valuable player in 2001, his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners, is self confident and someone who has always had his own ideas -- arguably part of why he fled Japanese baseball and adapted so quickly to the majors. Matsui is more deliberative and cautious.

“My concern about him playing for the Yankees is that it’s such a crazy place, the fans are out of control and the owner’s very loud,” said Yoshinari Tobe, author of “Hideki Matsui: Monster Legend.” “He usually takes some time to adjust, and I don’t think New Yorkers are patient enough to wait for him.”

Speculation on how well he’ll do is rife. For Japanese, it’s a point of pride to see their best stack up well in the big show. During his 10 seasons with the Giants, Matsui had a .304 average, hit 332 home runs, won three most valuable player awards and led his team four times to the Japan Series.

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If he does land in the Bronx, he’ll be a bridge between two very similar teams. Both have been dominating forces in their respective games, both have won more pennants and national series championships by far than competitors, both are the richest baseball franchises around.

Furthermore, the two are each accused of holding a huge, unfair advantage given the inordinate sums they garner to attract and keep talent.

A straight comparison vastly underplays the dominance here of the Yomiuri Giants, however. While the Yankees may be the closest thing America has to a national team -- if nothing else because so many Americans love to hate them -- that hardly compares with the 50% of Japanese fans rooting for the Giants.

“The Yomiuri Giants are like the New York Yankees, the L.A. Lakers, the Green Bay Packers and whoever else you want to throw in -- combined,” said Martin Kuehnert, president of International Sports Management & Consultants, a marketing firm. “In Japan, it’s death, taxes and the Giants.”

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The Giants essentially started Japanese professional baseball and have for 50 years been the only team whose games were all broadcast on nationwide network television. And they have a huge role in setting the rules, mostly to the benefit of their own franchise. It doesn’t hurt that their parent company owns the nation’s largest newspaper.

Ironically, it was the Giants who introduced the free agent system in Japan several years ago in order to steal away the best players from other teams. “Now Matsui is using it against the Giants,” said Masayuki Tamaki, an independent sports commentator. “I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘Oh no, what have we done?’ ”

Some believe his departure will serve as a warning for Japanese baseball.

“It could be a wake-up call,” said Itaru Kobayashi, a sports columnist. “They haven’t had much competition, haven’t tried to entertain fans. When you go to [Edison Field], on the other hand, there are places for kids to play video games, practice batting, run around the stadium.”

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Matsui was born on June 12, 1974 in the small town of Neagari in northern Japan, the younger of two boys. He showed early promise and his reputation preceded him in junior high school.

“I’d heard about this great boy and must say I was very disappointed when I first saw him,” says his former coach, Michihiro Takakuwa, who now works at the Neagari town office. “He was very fat.”

His mind changed when he saw Matsui’s power at the plate, and the boy was soon whipped into shape.

He was so solidly built, he soon acquired the nickname “sumo wrestler,” which he reportedly hated.

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By his last year of junior high school, he was team captain, top slugger and ace pitcher. He was also getting a big head. “This was the Matsui team,” Takakuwa said. “But I had to hit him several times to stop him from getting arrogant. There wasn’t much already I could do to improve his technique, so I worked on his character.”

Matsui moved on to Seiryo High School, a private academy famous for its sports program. One day, Takakuwa recalls getting a call from Matsui’s high school coach, whom he knew well, saying he was having trouble with Matsui.

“I was very worried, and asked what was wrong,” recalls Takakuwa. “His reply: ‘My ceiling is leaking because Matsui hit the ball so hard it broke my roof.’ That’s when I knew he was doing very well.”

The Giants made him their No. 1 draft pick in November 1992, around the same time he acquired the nickname “Godzilla.”

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“The name really matches his power and his tough, almost rather ugly face,” said Takakuwa. “But again, I don’t think he likes being called that.”

The Giants have made him rich and arguably Japan’s best-recognized sports stars. But experts say some of his competitive ire was raised by seeing others leave, including some he secretly considered inferior, while he remained to carry the torch.

Two years ago, the Giants offered him an eight-year, $50-million contract, the most generous ever seen here.After consulting with his father, however, he held the club off. They tried again the following year with a similar five-year contract, and again he deferred.

“He was tempted to stay, but the majors had always been his dream,” his father said.

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The day after the Giants won the Japan Series earlier this month -- some say within hours -- he informed the Giants’ front office he wanted out.

Matsui watchers say his urgency was less about outright eagerness than a reflection of how difficult the decision was for him and his fears they’d convince him to stay. At the recent news conference, amid the many apologies he delivered, he let slip that this decision represented the first time he’d been faithful to himself.

His self-deference, decade of service and well-loved personality has in the end made it difficult for even the most ardent Japanese fans to hold it too much against him.

“I think this is his big chance,” said Kiyoshi Nakahata, a former Giants’ coach. “I felt so bad he felt like a traitor. We regretted making him feel that way.”

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Matsui may have wealth, fame and a new challenge. One thing still missing for the multimillionaire, however, is any obvious girlfriend, arguably the cost of being so focused.

“I wish he’d find someone good so she could give him some support heading into the majors,” Tobe said.

Matsui’s prospective arrival in the U.S. on the heels of his compatriots creates an impression there’s a vast pool of Japanese talent waiting to be plucked. In fact, most of the best Japanese players have now been scouted, experts say, with one or two exceptions.

“They’ve seen the very top of the line, but that’s not reflective of the other 90%,” said International Sports Management’s Kuehnert.

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“On the [U.S.] side, there’s a tendency to say, ‘There are 100 more Ichiros running around.’ The truth is, there’s probably not a single other Ichiro.”

*

Hisako Ueno in the Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.


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