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New Tampa Bay Rays minor-leaguer Hideki Matsui still attracts huge Japanese media attention

PORT CHARLOTTE — The back fields at Charlotte Sports Park during extended spring camp is where monotonous meets anonymous.

But that's until the Hideki Matsui show came to town, with the legendary Japanese slugger, at 37 years old, still drawing a rock star following.

Matsui, who signed a minor-league deal with the Rays last week, had about 25 Japanese media members lining the fence watching his first game. Rhythmic clicks of cameras came with each swing, and writers detailed every pitch of his five plate appearances.

When Matsui, who went 2-for-4 with an RBI, reached in his first plate appearance on a hard-hit grounder off the first baseman's glove, there was a frenzied commotion among writers whether it was a hit or error.

"It was an international controversy," joked Jared Sandberg, manager of short-season Class A Hudson Valley. "It's good to have some hoopla atmosphere."

Matsui, a two-time All-Star and former World Series MVP with the Yankees, brings plenty of that. The man nicknamed "Godzilla" comes with his own translator and media relations adviser to accommodate the insatiable interest of the press.

In Matsui's native country, his popularity remains at a fever pitch. It stems from Matsui once starring for the country's storied baseball franchise, Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, winning three titles.

He's also as fan and media friendly as they come, drawing comparisons to Yankees captain Derek Jeter, doing it with an unassuming, humble manner.

"He was a national hero," said Orestes Destrade, a Sun Sports broadcaster who played five years in Japan. "He was hitting 40 homers a year, the team was winning. He was on that Jeter level."

• • •

It was during his high school years that Matsui's star status in Japan was sparked. In one of the premier tournaments, he was intentionally walked five times in a row, causing a national frenzy. "The news became a social issue," said NHK's Yoichiro Takahashi.

Matsui was drafted in the first round by the Giants and given No. 55, the single-season home run record held by Sadaharu Oh. Matsui hit 332 home runs, earning nine All-Star selections and three MVP awards.

And he did it under a microscope. Destrade described the Giants as the Yankees and Dallas Cowboys put together.

Darrell May, a pitcher and Matsui's teammate on the Giants, found out how big the left-handed-hitting slugger was. While on the rival Hanshin Giants in 1999, May hit Matsui with a pitch and was booed … by his home fans.

"You don't hear that in Japan. They don't boo, it's not in their culture," May said.

• • •

Matsui said it was a complicated and difficult decision to leave the Giants in 2002 to join the Yankees. In Tokyo, they held a parade to celebrate his signing. When he arrived in New York, there was so much media that the introductory news conference had to be held in a Manhattan hotel ballroom.

Takahashi estimated there were about 100 reporters following the outfielder that spring.

"We made a joke, maybe like a president of this country goes to Japan, but still maybe just 20 people, correspondents, follow — not 100 people," Takahashi said.

Even with Matsui earning two All-Star appearances and winning the World Series in 2009, writers had the challenge of finding material every day while covering one person.

"He never said, 'No comment,' " said Gaku Tashiro of Sankei Sports. "He once told me, 'I am answering for fans behind you, not for the media.' "

• • •

Pitcher Dallas Braden bought an inflatable Godzilla figurine to welcome Matsui to Oakland last season, dressed it in an A's jersey and cap and put it on Matsui's chair in the spring training clubhouse until he arrived.

"It was a pleasant surprise," Matsui said through interpreter Roger Kahlon. "That was certainly American humor, I guess, which was funny."

A's director of public relations Bob Rose said 20-25 Japanese media covered both home and away games, with many games televised overseas. The team added three Japanese sponsors. And Rose noticed a sizable impact in branding when they played this year's season-opening series in Tokyo: A's jerseys in the stands.

Said reliever Grant Balfour: "They showed highlights of the Tokyo Giants, and (Matsui) is always on it. … He's an icon over there."

New Tampa Bay Rays minor-leaguer Hideki Matsui still attracts huge Japanese media attention 05/10/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 12:20am]
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