Hideki Matsui has been seeing red since the day the former New York Yankees slugger signed a one-year, $6-million deal with the Angels on Dec. 16.
Now an entire nation across the Pacific -- and the sizable media contingent that follows him -- will have to get used to the idea, as Matsui noted when he was asked upon his arrival at camp on Friday if it felt strange to walk into a new spring-training complex and don a bright red Angels T-shirt and shorts for a workout.
“Not really, because I’ve already been in that mode,” Matsui said through an interpreter. “I think the Japanese fans might not be used to seeing me in red. I think one of the topics the fans and the media will be talking about is, will I look good in red?”
Well, does he?
“I think it will start to look good,” Matsui said.
In other words, this will take some getting used to, which is understandable considering Matsui, 35, spent all seven of his major league seasons in pinstripes and was named World Series most valuable player in November after helping the Yankees to their 27th championship.
Now Matsui, nicknamed “Godzilla” by a writer who saw him hit a prodigious home run in high school, is property of the Angels, who are counting on the designated hitter to provide the middle-of-the-order punch they lost with Vladimir Guerrero’s departure.
“Sometimes you can get swallowed up in New York with guys like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “Maybe Hideki was kind of lost in some of those names as far as what he brought to that team.
“But within baseball, you could see it. We’re excited to have him be that presence in the middle of our lineup like Vlad was. He will give us a deep look. He’s still an offensive force.”
Though a pair of arthritic knees, one of which required surgery before the 2009 season, prevented him from playing left field last year, Matsui still played in 142 games, batting .274 with 28 home runs and 90 runs batted in.
He went on a tear in the World Series, hitting .615 (eight for 13) with three homers and eight RBIs against the Philadelphia Phillies, including a two-homer, six-RBI game in the Yankees’ Game 6 clinching victory.
In 56 career postseason games, Matsui has hit .312 with a .391 on-base percentage, 10 homers, 15 doubles and 39 RBIs.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to explain it,” Matsui, who bats left-handed but has a .294 career average against lefties, said of his playoff success. “I prepare the same way for a playoff game as I do a regular-season game.”
Whatever Matsui did in New York, in the regular season and the playoffs, was big in Japan, and that won’t change in Anaheim.
About 15 to 20 Japanese media members, several of whom must move their families from New York to Los Angeles, will follow the Angels at home and on the road this season. The team had only three traveling beat writers last season.
Though Matsui rates a slight second behind Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki in the Japanese media’s pecking order, he is such a media sensation that a handful of writers formed a semicircle around his locker in the Tempe Diablo Stadium clubhouse Thursday, with some taking pictures and videos of his cubicle.
And Matsui wasn’t there.
“Even as a high school player, he was very famous, and he improved every year after joining one of the biggest teams in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants,” Takayuki Higa, a reporter for TV Asahi, said when asked to explain Matsui’s popularity.
“Fans desire news about him because he is one of the best home run hitters in Japan. Also, his personality is very good. He talks to the media every day, and that is not an easy task for him. He always thinks about the team and not himself.”
Higa is married with no children, but he didn’t see his coast-to-coast move as a hardship.
“There is nice weather in Southern California, kind people,” he said. “It’s good.”
Matsui, who will join the Angels for their first full-squad workout Tuesday, also dealt with a much larger local media contingent in New York, but he doesn’t necessarily see the move to Anaheim as one that will bring any more serenity.
“For me, the number of media doesn’t really bother me at all,” Matsui said. “Maybe when you look at the number of Japanese media, it might be a lot. But I’ve always accepted that. It’s part of the responsibility of being a baseball player.”
One of the big story lines this spring -- for the Japanese and Southern California-based media --will be whether Matsui is able to play the outfield.
Scioscia prefers to give outfielders Bobby Abreu, Juan Rivera and Torii Hunter occasional games at DH so he can get them off their feet while keeping their bats in the lineup, and if Matsui can play the outfield, the manager would have more lineup flexibility.
Those prospects weren’t looking very good on Friday, when Matsui said, “To be honest, my knees are not 100%.” But he remains optimistic about playing defense.
“I’ve been working toward getting back on the field with the strong belief that I will play defense,” Matsui said. “Hopefully, that will work out.”
It’s not imperative that Matsui play the field, but it would be an added bonus for Scioscia.
“Versatility breeds depth,” Scioscia said. “So if Hideki is able to play the outfield on a limited basis, it’s going to give us a lot more depth to rest guys, or if guys are out for a while, we’ll be able to keep an offensive team on the field. It’s something we’ll explore, but first and foremost, we need him swinging the bat.”
The Yankees, apparently, did not. Despite Matsui’s success in New York, the team made little effort to re-sign him this winter, figuring it will need more DH at-bats for Posada, the 38-year-old catcher who has two years left on his contract.
Perhaps that is why Matsui had little trouble cutting the cord with the Yankees.
“To me, that’s completely in the past,” he said. “As soon as I put on a new uniform, it was a new beginning. I’m looking forward to spending time here.”
Even if he is now in the red.
Arbitrate this Mathis wins arbitration hearing, and Angels must pay him $1.3 million. C8