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Matsui Slugs It out in New York (May 21, 2003)

Matsui Hideki
Matsui pounds a base hit to center field. (Jiji)
Hideki Matsui was for many years the top star of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular baseball team, and he has long been the face of Japanese baseball. When this 28-year-old superstar headed to the United States to join the storied New York Yankees, all of Japan waited in anticipation to see how he would do. Now that the season has started, people have had a chance to see for themselves.

Winning over the Fans
The Yankees opened the season in Toronto against the Blue Jays on March 31, and in his first at-bat Matsui got his first Major League hit and drove in the first run of the season for the Yankees. In the team's home opener at Yankee Stadium on April 8, Matsui answered expectations by hitting a grand slam, his first home run with his new team. The exploits of the slugger affectionately nicknamed "Godzilla" have been a topic of conversation all over Japan.

Matsui has been starting in left field for the Yankees and has usually been batting in the fifth spot in the order. While the fans in New York have a reputation for being hard on the players at times, Matsui seems to have won them over. By hitting a grand slam in his first appearance in Yankee Stadium, Matsui became the first Yankee ever to accomplish that feat. After doing so, he was called out of the dugout to acknowledge the fans, who had given him a standing ovation. Later in the month, Matsui got his first walk-off hit, a hit that drives in the winning run and ends the game.

When the Yankees were on a road trip in late April, Matsui had his first chance to bat cleanup, hitting in the fourth spot in the order. He struggled with the pitcher he faced that day, though. As of May 21, Matsui had collected 29 RBIs. His batting average (.272) and number of home runs (3), however, were not what some had expected. But the Yankees remain pleased with Matsui, and manager Joe Torre has high hopes for the slugger. Some observers predict he'll finish the season batting .300 with about 25 home runs.

Japanese Media Offers Massive Coverage
Many Japanese people have been closely following Matsui's performance with the Yankees, and how he did in that day's game is often the lead sports story on TV news programs. Most of his games are broadcast in Japan live, and Matsui has been the subject of countless newspaper headlines. There are a number of Japanese TV and print journalists following the Yankees full-time, and coverage reached a frenzied pitch in late April when the Yankees faced Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro was named both the American League Rookie of the Year and the AL Most Valuable Player in his debut season in 2001. The series between the Yankees and Mariners was billed in Japan as "Matsui versus Ichiro."

Even with the crushing coverage that is focused on his every move, Matsui has continued to be exceedingly polite and has never voiced any complaints. He courteously answers every question put to him by the media and keeps his concentration on playing baseball. His good nature and his dedication to the game have earned him praise from his teammates and the American media as well.

Focusing on a Compact Approach
While Matsui was known in Japan for his crushing home runs that sometimes hit the roof of the Tokyo Dome, he is putting off swinging for the fences for the time being in favor of taking a more compact approach to hitting and adjusting to the different strike zone and different types of pitches thrown in the Major Leagues. In particular, he is working on hitting to the opposite field in order to effectively deal with pitches thrown on the outside of the plate.

While Matsui has said that he has "not forgotten the appeal of home runs," he is aware that there are already many power hitters in the Major Leagues at present, including on his own team. With the abundance of talent that the Yankees possess, Matsui perhaps does not feel the need to carry the team the way he did with the Yomiuri Giants, and he can afford to take a bit of time to further develop his skills. Fans in Japan are waiting for the day when Matsui begins to hit the ball out of the park regularly.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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