Sports Nut

The Anti-Ichiro

Why Hideki Matsui will make a perfect Yankee.

Hideki Matsui, the new Yankee outfielder, is the anti-Ichiro: tall and muscular, not small and wiry; home runs instead of singles; earnest rather than witty. Where Ichiro is a dizzying mix of contrary and contradictory attitudes toward Japanese society, Matsui embodies its most traditional aspects. During the U.S. stars’ tour of Japan during the fall of 2002, Ichiro, asked a question by a Japanese reporter, answered in Japanese. The Yankees’ Jason Giambi interrupted him: “Hey, you’ve got to speak English now. You’re a big-leaguer.” Ichiro said, “Shut up, dude.” When Matsui lost a home-run hitting contest to Barry Bonds during the same tour, Matsui said, “Today became a memorable day for me. I really admire his power and he sure is the No. 1 hitter in the world.” Asked recently if he thought Matsui would achieve success in the major leagues, Ichiro characteristically deconstructed the question: ” ‘Success’ is such a vague word. The records, numbers, and opinions of other people are secondary. I never set personal statistical goals.” At his debut press conference in New York, Matsui, asked if he thought he could duplicate his 2002 year with Japan’s Yomiuri Giants (50 home runs, 107 RBI, .337 batting average) this coming year in the major leagues, said, “It’s probably going to be a little difficult, but I will try really hard to see if I can get results close to what I had last year. My strongest point is that I can hit home runs, and I hope I can produce the same result in America.”

Matsui and the Yankees are a perfect fit. They’re clean-cut, pleasant, old-school, and bromide-bound. They’re inevitably described as “classy” or a “class act.” And like the Yankee stars (with the conspicuous exception of David Wells), Matsui has configured a public persona so bland and all-encompassing that anything remotely real rarely penetrates or escapes the heat shields he has erected.

Born in 1974 in northern Japan, Matsui grew up in rural Kanazawa City, Ishikawa. As a boy, he hit the ball so far right-handed that his older brother forced him to hit left-handed in pickup games. (He still bats left but throws right.) He became a national legend when, in the Koshien High School tournament, he was intentionally walked five times; while fans booed and yelled and even threw garbage on the field (virtually unheard of in Japan), he quietly dropped his helmet and ran to first base each time without complaining. Until leaving for the United States in February for spring training (followed by 150 members of the Japanese media, who chartered their own flight to New York), he lived in an exclusive Tokyo apartment tower. He keeps to himself and is single—”the cost of being so focused,” one publication speculated.

Matsui acquired his nickname “Godzilla” in high school, according to Ken Maranta, a writer at Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper: “At the Koshien tournament, Matsui would grit his teeth as he was swinging. One reporter said he looked like Godzilla because his teeth were all in line.” In characteristic self-erasure, Matsui claims to “like the nickname a lot. Godzilla is a very strong creature but also has a good heart, and my face looks kind of like Godzilla. My face is scary.”

When Matsui held a press conference to announce that he was leaving Japanese baseball, he wrote his talking points in pen on his hand, and he had tears in his eyes. Matsui says, “For the past year, I played with the Giants, and that meant I couldn’t share my dream with my teammates or the fans. I had to avoid thinking about it by making every effort to place a lid on my selfishness.” Matsui “agonized over it to the end. I tried to tell myself I needed to stay here for the prosperity of Japanese baseball, but my personal desire to go over there and play didn’t go away. In the end I decided to go with what my gut said. This is the first time I’ve ever been faithful to myself. My greatest regret is what the fans will think. Some might call me a traitor. Once over there, I will do my best, as if my life were on the line, so the fans will be glad I went. The only thing I can say is ‘I am sorry.’ “

Asked, at the beginning of his first MLB season, if he had any regrets leaving Japan to play in the United States, Ichiro said, “I have no regrets following my dream to play in the major leagues. In fact, my only regret would have been if I didn’t follow my dream.” Upon arriving in the United States, Ichiro said, “Hey, Seattle, wassup?”

Ichiro says, “I don’t play baseball for other people; I play baseball for myself.” When asked if he had any special feelings after playing his first spring-training game with the Mariners, Ichiro said, “Today was just another game to me. I know it has some importance to the media, but not to me. Even being the first game, I was excited, not anxious.” Matsui, on the other hand, tends to tighten upunder pressure, because baseball is everything to him. In the U.S. All-Stars’ tour of Japan in November—which Japanese fans hoped would showcase Matsui’s home-run prowess; every time he came to bat, the public-address system played “We Are the Champions”—he hit no home runs and went 5-for-31 in the seven-game series. With each failure, his shoulders slumped lower, and he gripped the bat handle more tightly. In the bottom of the ninth inning of the tie-breaking seventh game, with Japan behind 4-2 and the bases loaded, Matsui, with a chance to redeem himself, weakly grounded out to end the game and the series. During his home-run duel with Barry Bonds before one of the games, he was so anxious that Bonds came over and massaged his shoulders, trying to get him to relax a little.

Matsui said, “During this series, I found out there are a lot of things I need to work on. I just have to accept the result and try hard when I get to America so I can show what I can do. I want to put the lessons I learned in this season to good use next year. I have to show the fans a bigger Matsui. Otherwise, there’s no point in my going over there.” More so than most players, certainly in the United States and even those in Japan, Matsui is aware of fans’ fantasies of him, and he badly wants to live up to these fantasies—which makes him seem quite likable but also enormously vulnerable and somewhat naive. It’s difficult to imagine him not struggling mightily his first year in New York.

At the press conference introducing him as a Yankee, Matsui, sounding as if he were reading from a TelePrompTer, said, over and over, “I’ll try my best. I’ll work hard. I’ll do my best.” He also said: “I’m really honored to be able to come to this beautiful city. … Today has been one of the happiest days of my life. … I’d like to try as hard as possible to become one of the team members of the New York Yankees and to be accepted in the city. … I can’t wait to stand in the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium, where honorable and very famous players have stepped. The ideal ballplayer is Babe Ruth. I want to be that kind of ballplayer, to give back to the baseball fans. I want to stand in the same batter’s box where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig stood. I’ll try really hard to bring a World Series championship to this city.”

George Steinbrenner—who recently said, “I used to be an isolationist, but now I see the benefits of reaching out worldwide”—said about Matsui at the end of the media session, “What a nice young man.” Yankee triumphalism had another willing convert.