Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have been the greatest Japanese baseball players of their generation, excelling in the American major leagues just as they did at home.
One is a ferociously disciplined singles and doubles hitter, treating at-bats almost like a martial art, acquiring an image as an aloof, machine-like athlete as he chased hitting records on both sides of the Pacific.
The other is a slugger whose power is matched by an over-sized personality, adored by fans and the media brigade that followed his journey from Tokyo to New York in search of glory at the highest level of the game.
Ichiro is the stoic media-shy obsessive with the Seattle Mariners, who toiled in the obscurity of the smaller of his country’s two leagues before becoming the first Japanese position player to dominate in Major League Baseball.
Matsui, of the fabled Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo, is the one who famously cried on national TV when announcing his decision to leave for the Yankees, and who was swiftly forgiven at home as he shattered the perception that Japanese players couldn’t hit the long ball in the American game.
If it was a rivalry for popularity in Japan, it wasn’t really close. For years after leaving Japan, Matsui grabbed the headlines and the big endorsement deals back home. He stroked the media entourage that shadowed him, his personality as big as the town he played in. Ichiro did his best to ignore the media. Racking up records but playing on a non-contender, the Mariners’ outfielder came to be seen as moody, even petulant.
Then came the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, and the baton was passed.
Matsui had a new contract with the Yankees and an unfulfilled dream of a World Series ring. Despite personal pleas from Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s national manager and an icon himself, Matsui opted to skip the tournament. He put Steinbrenner before country.
And it sent a signal. Every other Japanese player in MLB opted out of the first Classic except for Texas Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka -- and Ichiro.
Suddenly cast as the front man on a team with a shot at winning something important, Ichiro responded with a personality makeover. Gone was the “selfish” Ichiro. In its place was a sort of Japanese Derek Jeter, fired up in the dugout, pumping fists and rallying the Japanese team to victory. With Matsui doing sit-ups in Yankees spring training, Ichiro hit .364 against the best the rest of the world could throw at him, with four steals and seven runs scored.
When Japan struggled for hits in the middle of the tournament, he accepted Oh’s decision to move him from the leadoff spot to third in the order without complaint, going three for five in Japan’s semifinal win over South Korea (now that’s a rivalry) and two for four with three runs scored and a run batted in in the championship win over Cuba. “Probably the biggest moment of my baseball career,” Ichiro called it.
Japanese fans repaid the love. Ichiro became the national hero, and it has never been quite the same for Matsui, who broke his wrist early in the 2006 season and has struggled with injuries ever since. He’s still a celebrity in Japan. But now there are other names that tumble from kids’ lips -- not just Ichiro but (Daisuke) Matsuzaka, (Kosuke) Fukudome and the latest pitching star, Yu Darvish.
When Japan played China in its first-round WBC game early today -- at 1:30 in the morning PST -- Matsui again was missing. Bad knee.
“He got an injury and had surgery on his left knee last year -- and he is only now on his way to recovery,” said Masao Matsui, Hideki’s father, who runs a baseball museum in rural Japan dedicated to his son. “Just a few days ago, the Yankees allowed him to run. If he joined the national team, he wouldn’t perform as best as he can. That would be bad both for Hideki and the national team.”
The Japanese baseball public seems to understand.
“To choose to play for your country is better -- a lot of Japanese athletes are doing it,” sportswriter Hiroya Ueyama said. “But I think most people know that Matsui was hurt and had a hard time last season.
“For last year’s Olympic team, Japan had a lot of injured players and went to Beijing and didn’t do well. For this Classic, they tried not to invite injured players. They didn’t want to repeat the mistake.”
Matsui is far from the only player to pass on the WBC. The Korean national team, which opens Friday against Chinese Taipei, will be without some of its best -- pitcher Chan Ho Park and power hitter Lee Seung-yeop.
Park, a former Dodgers pitcher who is trying to make the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting rotation, announced in a tearful news conference that he was retiring from the national team.
“Don’t sob like a nerd,” one former fan wrote on Park’s website.
It’s different in the U.S., where many fans consider the WBC a goofy exhibition that distracts from the real business of the 162-game season, and where the worst an American player faces for opting out is a tongue-lashing from the patriotic Tom Lasorda. But it’s a little more serious in other countries, where soccer players have established the ethic that it’s OK to leave home to play for big money on foreign clubs -- just as long as they put on that national jersey when their country calls.
The Ichiro experience is a case in point.
“What Ichiro did in 2006 just cannot be underestimated,” said Jim Small, MLB’s managing director for Asia. “It wasn’t just that he played on the team when Matsui didn’t. It was the absolute passion he showed, which was so highly unusual for a Japanese player. It’s still etched in people’s minds.”
Ueyama said Ichiro’s heart won him more fans than his bat ever could.
“Before the tournament, he was all business. He didn’t talk that much, to the media or to other players,” he said. “But when he played for the national team, he showed his anger, his emotions. He took players to dinner and told them that they should play for their country. Japan saw a new Ichiro.”
Masao Matsui says his son would do anything to don a Japanese national uniform now.
Hideki wore Japan’s uniform as a high school player to compete against the United States and Korea in Los Angeles, and has “a good memory of that,” the elder Matsui said. “He wants to play in front of this nation and his family. He has told his family that.”
It’s a signal that supporters of the WBC want to hear, a sign it has arrived.
Can’t sleep? Then see who won
You can find the result of the Japan-China World Baseball Classic game (a 1:30 a.m. start) as soon as it is over on our website.