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Hideki Matsui says Tampa Bay Rays had most interest in signing him

ST. PETERSBURG — Hideki Matsui wants to get back to the majors and play for the Rays.

But first he has to show he is still capable by playing at Triple-A Durham.

And in Tuesday's introductory appearance after signing a minor-league deal with the Rays, he said he was ready to do just that — and to ride the busses for hours and take the early morning commercial flights as well.

"I'm going to be a minor-leaguer," Matsui said through his interpreter, "so I'm going to travel like a minor-leaguer."

Despite being an All-Star in the Japanese and major leagues and making more than $80 million in the United States, Matsui, who turns 38 in June, said he had no problem taking a minor-league deal that did not include any guarantee of a callup or an out clause.

"As far as the minor-league offer, I think that really resembles where I'm at as far as myself as a baseball player," Matsui said.

After playing nine seasons in the majors (2003-09 with the Yankees) and hitting .251 for Oakland last season, Matsui went unsigned but wanted to keep playing in the states, with no thoughts of returning to Japan. The Rays had interest, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, and after they ended up signing Luke Scott and Carlos Peña, they kept the conversation ongoing, keen to the idea of adding depth.

"We've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he does in the batter's box, the type of person he is, the type of teammate he is, the success that he's enjoyed," Friedman said. "So he's always been someone that's been on our radar."

Even though Matsui signed a minor-league deal (with the terms not available), it was still major news in Japan. About 50 Japanese journalists were at the Trop (and most headed to Port Charlotte), and the news conference was carried live on two networks in Japan, where it was midnight.

Matsui will report first to Port Charlotte, working out for the first time this morning with the extended spring group. The plan is for him to play a few games there, then report to Durham by mid May. Matsui, who spent most of the offseason in New York working out, said he isn't far from being ready: "Physically I feel really good. I feel I'm in pretty good condition, so hopefully it shouldn't take too long."

Asked how long he'd stay in the minors, Matsui said: "I guess I really don't have an answer for that right now."

Though "there's nothing formal" in place regarding an out clause if Matsui doesn't get called up, Friedman said if another team was interested in having him in the majors, they would, as they have in the past, try to work something out: "We've demonstrated over time that we'll be extremely fair with players in our organization and with someone of his caliber we're going to treat him with the respect that he deserves. … But we'll never be an issue in the process of him getting back to the major leagues where he belongs."

Though the interim steps are somewhat uncertain, Matsui is clear on the end game. "It's to hopefully join the team," he said, "and be some kind of force for the team at the major-league level."

Japanese media photograph Hideki Matsui, who says he hopes to reach the majors but doesn’t know how long it will take.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Japanese media photograph Hideki Matsui, who says he hopes to reach the majors but doesn’t know how long it will take.

Hideki Matsui says Tampa Bay Rays had most interest in signing him 05/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 11:59am]

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