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Rays bring Matsui mania back to New York

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:40 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

A dozen reporters representing a dozen media outlets in Japan watched as Hideki Matsui walked down the corridor outside the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse after Saturday's game until he turned a corner and disappeared from sight.

Then it was off to the Tropicana Field press box where they filed their stories and uploaded their videos and pictures of Matsui's postgame interview for all the Matsui fans back home to read, watch and digest. And there are a lot of Matsui fans in baseball-crazed Japan, so many, in fact, that reporters are assigned to cover Matsui and Matsui only.

To some, the question is why?

"That's the question we all get asked," NHK CosmoMedia reporter Yo Takahashi said. "Somehow, he's bigger than baseball. He's some kind of an icon. Some people say he's a rock star, he's a politician. He's pretty much everything."

Takahashi has covered Matsui for NHK TV since Matsui arrived in New York in 2003, and where he returns tonight as a member of the Rays, to begin his career with the New York Yankees. This after Matsui climbed to the top of the Japan baseball world after 10 remarkable seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, during which he won three MVPs and three championships.

The joke among the Japanese media, Takahashi said, is if the President of the United States traveled abroad, he wouldn't bring as much media with him as Matsui draws each day in America.

It's the same with Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners.

Matsui deals with two sets of reporters after games. He answers questions from the Tampa Bay media at his locker through his translator Roger Kahlon. Then he steps outside the clubhouse, stands in front of a backdrop with the Rays logo and takes questions from the Japanese media.

Matsui sees this as part of his normal routine, an obligation to the folks back home who care so much about his career.

"Not only is he a great Japanese player, he's a great Major League Baseball player," Rays shortstop Elliot Johnson said of his new teammate. "Obviously they're really, really proud of him and they're really, really interested in what he does."

When asked if he could imagine drawing his own media throng on a daily basis, Johnson said, "No, never."

Rays center fielder B.J. Upton had the same reaction.

"I wouldn't want it," Upton said. "That's just not for me, but I think that's the way of their culture. It's a little different from ours, and he's the man . It's understandable."

When it comes to baseball icons in Japan, all conversations begin with Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 home runs during a Ruthian career from 1959-1980 that included 11 championships, 15 home run titles and nine MVPs for the Yomiuri Giants. After Oh comes Shigeo Nagashima, Oh's teammate, who won five MVPs and six batting titles.

"He was considered to be the Joe DiMaggio of Japan," Takahashi said. "Mr. Oh and Mr. Nagashima, they are the two most powerful baseball figures."

Running a close third and fourth are Suzuki and Matsui, who put their stamp on the major leagues. Suzuki, a 10-time all-star and 10-time Gold Glove winner with the Mariners, owns the major league's single-season record for hits with 262 in 2004.

"Usually when Japanese players come over here they have to adjust to the American style," Takahashi said. "But when Ichiro came over here, the Americans had to adjust to Ichiro's style. That makes us so proud that he's Japanese."

Matsui, a two-time all-star, played on baseball's biggest stage in America and was the MVP of the 2009 World Series as a member of the Yankees.

"Ichiro has the record and Matsui has the memory," Takahashi said.

Matsui returns to Yankee Stadium tonight when the Rays open a three-game series. The trip holds no other meaning than the chance to see some old teammates and friends, Matsui said.

The Yankee fans should greet him warmly, just as they did when Matsui returned with the Angels in 2010 and the A's last season.

"When he became World Series MVP, he became part of the history of the Yankees, too," Takahashi said.

Matsui wears the unfamiliar No. 35 now because, he said, it was available – Rays rookie Matt Moore wears No. 55 – and it gives him a chance to keep one of the fives. But Takahashi said there is more to the story.

Nagashima, Matsui's manager with the Yomiuri Giants, wore No. 3, and pitcher Mike Mussina, Matsui's teammate with the Yankees, wore No. 35. Nagashima was Matsui's mentor when Matsui was learning to be a professional baseball player, and Matsui was impressed with the way Mussina won 20 games for the first time in his career then retired.

"No. 3 is a tribute to his teacher," Takahashi said," and No. 35 is some kind of tribute to Mike Mussina."


rmooney@tampatribune.com

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