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Cashing in on Matsui-mania

The hours are long and the days off are few, but Bob South isn't complaining.

The freelance video photographer from St. Pete Beach, hired by a Japanese television network to chronicle the spring training feats of New York Yankees baseball player Hideki Matsui, is making a nice wage.

And he isn't the only one.

A throng of Japanese media, whose numbers have ranged from 100 to 300, is renting satellite trucks, vans and entire floors of Tampa hotels near Legends Field, the Yankees' spring training complex. They're patronizing local restaurants and hiring freelance TV crews to chronicle every move of the athlete who is such a sensation back home in Japan.

Matsui-mania is a cottage industry, and the locals have learned to love it.

"The only thing wrong is I'm gaining weight," South said. "They feed their crews very well. And I've learned to like sushi."

Matsui is a 28-year-old outfielder and slugging sensation who totes a career Japanese pro batting average of .304 and the nickname "Godzilla." The 6-foot-1, 209-pounder was the star of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants until he signed a three-year, $21-million deal with the Yankees in December.

The cult of Matsui is freaky in its intensity. Think Elvis, Madonna or Princess Diana. When Matsui is at home, he is followed by paparazzi on motorcycles whenever he steps outside. The media mob has followed him to the United States.

At the first Yankees spring workout, typically watched by an on-field crowd of 50 to 60 reporters and camera people, there were 200, said Rick Cerrone, Yankees spokesman. On a daily basis, 120 to 150 carry media credentials, Cerrone said, but more hover about as support.

It may be a small ripple in the $200-million that the nine spring training teams in west-central Florida are said to inject into the local economy, but it's noticeable. For one thing, the mere presence of that many Japanese people in Tampa effectively doubles Tampa's Japanese population, which the 2000 census pegged at 231 people.

"They've been here in droves," said Wesley Hori, general manager of Crazy Buffet, an Asian all-you-can-eat restaurant just down the road from Legends Field. "It has been good business."

The biggest problem that has emerged as spring training has gotten under way, Cerrone said, was space for the photographers. They proposed additional scaffolding in right field.

"I hadn't budgeted to spend $1,700 on scaffolding, but they gave me a check," he said opening a drawer at Legends Field and holding it up. "We've had some Japanese players before, but we've never experienced anything like this."

The Tokyo network, Nippon Television, is averaging two to three live broadcasts a day, even when the Yankees aren't playing, said Tomoyuki Kawano, director of the network's nightly sports program.

"It seems that the appetite, though, is completely insatiable," said Kawano, who is renting much of one floor of a Tampa hotel and its conference room, which staffers have made into a temporary television studio.

The demand for Matsui news is welcomed by Orestes Destrade, a former Marlins player and Devil Rays executive who is writing a couple of weekly online columns for a Japanese Web site and a weekly baseball show for Japanese television.

"Matsui is paying for my kids' college right now," said Destrade, of Clearwater. "I'm hoping he stays nice and healthy."

Matsui appears to be off to a good start. Godzilla _ the Yankees lend legitimacy to the long-held nickname by playing the Blue Oyster Cult song by the same name each time he steps to the plate _ hit a two-run homer in his first spring training game. The game was broadcast live in Japan on high-definition TV, with the first pitch thrown at 3:15 a.m. local time.

Along with the local boomlet, the Matsui craze has created moneymaking opportunities in other U.S. markets, particularly New York.

Pinstriped jerseys with his No. 55 on them are selling well at $120 each. And the president of New York's convention and visitors bureau said travel agencies have bought 1,000 tickets for Yankees home games with the idea of marketing travel packages to Japanese sports enthusiasts.

Matsui isn't the only Japanese player to create such a furor.

Seattle experienced a similar phenomenon when the Mariners in 2000 signed another Japanese superstar, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Travel agents reported increased sports tourism business, merchandise sales went through the roof and the Japanese media followed him with fervor.

At one point, a Japanese Web publisher reportedly offered $2-million for a picture of a naked Ichiro, who apparently is seen as something of a sex symbol. The situation forced him to dress in a secluded part of the Mariners' locker room.

The adulation surrounding Ichiro _ he prefers to be called by his first name _ grew in the United States along with his athletic accolades. He was the 2001 American League Most Valuable Player and hit .321 last season. When the Mariners gave away Ichiro bobblehead dolls, people camped outside the stadium overnight in the rain to make sure they were among the 20,000 who would get one.

By this spring training season, the Japanese media contingent following Ichiro had waned from about 50 or 60 to maybe 20.

Ultimately, interest in Matsui may dwindle as well. But for now, with less than a month left of spring training, locals are happy for the attention and hope it continues next year.

Stormy McNeil, general manager of the Residence Inn by Marriott, said her 160-suite Tampa hotel typically is pretty full at this time of the year, but that the Japanese media have made for an interesting bunch of guests.

The front desk personnel have learned a few words in Japanese, including "konnichiwa," which means "hello." And the hotel put up a banner that said "Go Matsui!"

"It's been a lot of fun for us," McNeil said. "I'm hoping they'll be back next year. They're absolutely welcome."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report. Alicia Caldwell can be reached at Aliciasptimes.com or (727)893-8145

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