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Wednesday, December 1, 2004
Updated: October 29, 2:49 PM ET
KAZ MATSUI IS 'NEXT'

By Tim Kurkjian

This might have been a 'miss' for us, but circa 2004, it seemed golden.

The Yankee imperialists are here. So are the Met and Dodger and Oriole and Mariner and, of course, Nike imperialists. Some 8,000 miles from America, in a sterile domed stadium in Sapporo, they hunt for resources to exploit, gems to bring home. Here, at Asia's Olympic-qualifying tournament in early November, they find plenty on Japan's national team. "Matsuzaka," says one major league scout, savoring the word like a rich piece of sashimi. "And he's their second-best pitcher."

"Fukudome," says another scout, shaking his head at the talent of a hard-hitting outfielder. "See how quick his hands are?" But the one they won't talk about, the one they can't yet talk about, is the one everyone else is talking about: relentless Japanese sports writers, American beat writers, even little old ladies in souvenir shops. "Ritto Matsui," they say, smiling. That's Kazuo Matsui a.k.a. "Little Matsui"—no relation to the Yankees Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, other than their shared Japanese superstardom. Kazuo (please don't call him Kaz) is the switch-hitter with as much speed as Ichiro and nearly as much power as Godzilla; the slick infielder with the firehose arm and intercontinental range; the new-breed Japanese athlete, who respects most of his nations baseball traditions even while his hair sports more colors than the Shinjuku Gardens chrysanthemum beds. Scouts won't speak his name, afraid of tipping their hands (okay, they all want him), but his countrymen can say it and do, at the tops of their lungs. The Sapporo Dome fills with cries from the "oendan," the super-organized cheering section for Japan's national team. Accompanied by cornet, drums and Rising Sun flags, they chant their leadoff hitters name with earsplitting enthusiasm: "Katsu& Katsu…Katsu…Ohh!"

"It is how fans cheered for me with the Seibu Lions," Matsui explains through an interpreter. "In Japanese, katsu means victory." In America, where international players are invigorating the national pastime, the word "Japanese" increasingly means the same thing. That's why Kazuo Matsui, the gem who graces our cover now and will grace our diamonds in the spring, is Next.

AN OCEAN has been crossed, a sea change registered. Japan has come to major league baseball. And its arrival couldn't be more timely for the game sown round the world by American imperialism. Just as Commodore Perry forced Japan to open up to the West in 1853, a generation of Japanese players is opening the minds of American fans, sending fantasy players scurrying to Nipponese websites. This new wave has also opened the eyes of MLB executives. Thanks largely to the Asian invasion, baseball is planning a World Cup (likely to happen in March 2005), where Vlad Guerrero and the Dominicans will challenge Miguel Cabrera and the Venezuelans, who'll take on Japan and its Matsuis. Unlike at the Olympics, Americans will play too. The colonies have become the colonizers. Nomo and Sasaki and Ichiro and Godzilla have not only survived but thrived, adding style and grace to a game marred by labor wars, taxpayer rip-offs and, quite possibly, chemically cooked record books. First came the pitchers, who showed the talent to no-hit big leaguers. Next came the outfielders, who showed the talent to hit big leaguers. Now comes the first infielder, who shows both the talent and temperament to assume a big league leadership role. And Asia isn't through with us. In the wings are dozens of players not only from Japan, but also from Korea, Taiwan and, down the line, China with the potential to make the crossing. It is just one facet of the growing Pacific Rim influence on American sports. Yao Ming and the Chinese basketball revolution, Se Ri Pak and the legion of Korean golfers, second-generation Asian-Americans like Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie and Dat Nguyen all are changing the face of America's games, and erasing stereotypes along the way.

For now, though, all eyes are on 28-year-old Kazuo Matsui, the newest Met. He's been called one of the top five shortstops on the planet, right up there with A-Rod, Nomar, Jeter and Tejada. And he just might be the best pure athlete the Japanese game has yet produced. There is no doubt he's a star. Fans know it. He received stacks of mail from supporters of the Lions, his team for 10 years, begging him to finish his career there. "It made me feel good to know people cared that much," he says.

Scouts know it. "I like him a lot," says Robert Eenhoorn, a former Yankees and Angels utilityman from the Netherlands who now coaches the Dutch national team. "His feet, his arm. He's never out of position."

Matsui knows it. He's got a stars aura, even beyond the glow from the orange mullet he sported at the Asian championships. But he's no hotdog. He doesn't grab attention like Ichiro, the shades-wearing, bat-twirling, scenery-chewing teen idol. Nor does he command the reverence of the solid, stoic Godzilla, a modern samurai and the embodiment of Japanese manhood. Kazuo is something in between. He's a talkative bundle of energy, with an affable nature common to his native Osaka, Japan's second city. (There, the Hanshin Tigers are loveable losers just like the Cubs, and Koshien Stadium is an ivy-covered classic just like Wrigley.) Yet he's always had an independent streak. "I grew up loving the Tokyo Giants," Little Matsui says bluntly. "In Osaka?" He's asked. There is no translation necessary. He puts an index finger to his lips, says, "Shhh," then bursts out laughing. On the field, he's an anchor: seven straight 150-hit seasons (that's for 140 games a year); a career .309 average; 36 homers and 33 steals in 2002,followed by a blowout performance in the Japan-MLB All-Star series, where he went yard from each side of the plate in one game. Last season he struggled with minor injuries but still hit .305 with 33 homers and 84 RBIs, while keeping alive the longest consecutive-games-played streak (1,143) among active Japanese players. Yes, MLB washout Tuffy Rhodes is a home run machine in Japan (he's hit 50 twice), and Matsui's stature (5'9", 183 pounds) won't make anyone forget A-Rod. When he took in his first live U.S. baseball game in Yankee Stadium this fall, Kazuo couldn't believe his eyes. "The players are enormous," he says. "The infield looked small." But he is unlikely to be intimidated. For one thing, he's built like a tree trunk. In fact, while Japanese coaches were slow to embrace weight training (they feared bulked-up players would be too inflexible), Matsui has been pushing lead for years. "I was a pitcher in high school, and I hurt my arm," he says. "I used to watch American baseball on TV, and I thought if I could get that big, my arm would heal better and be stronger. That's a high schooler's mind, but that's how I got to love weight training." It helped make him what he is today: incredibly fast. Earlier in his career, Matsui was dubbed the Barry Larkin of Japan, but you have to cross more than an ocean to find a good comparison. He moves like Andre Agassi, giving off the same restless vibe when he plays, in constant motion before every pitch. On the base paths, his acceleration makes you gasp. Fans and scouts in Sapporo were treated to an exhibition of that speed when he ripped a ball into the gap and, as he rounded first, saw he had a chance for a triple. "He just found another gear," says Rob Derksen, a former Orioles scout and the coach of the Greek Olympic team. His arm is strong enough that he could play third base as easily as second, where several MLB teams thought about moving him. (But not the Mets, who've asked young shortstop Jose Reyes to consider a switch to second to make room for Matsui.) "He's such a great athlete, I think he could play anywhere," says Marty Kuehnert, a broadcaster and columnist for the Japan Times who's covered the Japanese game for 16 years.

It's all the more impressive when you consider Matsui never played a lick of infield until the pros. At PL Gakuen, which is to Japanese baseball what Oak Hill Academy is to U.S. prep hoops, he was a pitcher talented enough to throw in the annual national tournament at Koshien Stadium—the pinnacle of success for Japanese high schoolers. He didn't learn to switch-hit until three years into his pro career. Longtime observers say he's as good a natural athlete as they've ever seen in the Japanese leagues, and that includes Ichiro, the fastest man in the majors. Scouts say Kazuo is a half-step faster. He blushes when told that, shaking his head in denial, just like he balks at the Agassi comparison. But it's notable that in his daily six-hour off-season workouts, he finishes with an hour of tennis: "It's a better way of cooling down than jogging. We hit it to the corners to make the other guy run. Its fun. But I'm not good at all." Right. Don't let the modest statements fool you. He is supremely confident.

That's why he's coming to America after 10 years with Seibu. "I have enjoyed it, and its been an honor," he says. "But you have a short time to play the game, 20 years at the most. I don't want to regret anything. I want to play with the best players in the world." American GMs used to question whether Japanese players had the heart to hack it here. But that was before seeing them play. Stars like Matsui risk a lot in jumping to the States: endorsements, a cozy life back home, embarrassment in a culture that prizes saving face. "If these guys are willing to give up everything they have to play in the majors, that answers all the questions right there," says Pat Kelly, who played second base for the Yanks, Cards and Jays and now scouts the Pacific Rim for the Dodgers.

The way Matsui sees it, the only risk would be in not trying. "I don't feel any pressure, he says. "I spoke with my wife, Mio, after the season. She said, 'Just don't do anything that will make you regretful.' She said to do what's best for my career. Even if that meant switching positions. I don't have an unhealthy attachment to shortstop," he says. He'd move to second if a team wanted, then bide his time and try to win his old position back. Wouldn't matter if he had to unseat A-Rod, Jeter or Honus Wagner. "I am a shortstop," he says, "and I want to keep that dream alive." His guiding principle doesn't sound foreign at all to American ears: Go for it.

WASN'T LONG ago that a player in Matsui's situation wouldn't dare go for it. Robert Whiting, whose third book on Japanese baseball, The Meaning of Ichiro, comes out in March, predicted 15 years ago that a Japanese player would never jump to the majors. "Once players saw they had the freedom to move," he says, "the whole attitude changed." Hideo Nomos defection from the Japanese leagues, by retiring and then declaring free agency, breached the dam in 1995. And Alfonso Soriano's brazen jump from the Japanese minors to the U.S. (he refused to sign with Hiroshima after losing his arbitration case) punched a hole in the country's equivalent of the reserve clause. Players still must wait nine years for free agency, limiting the flight, but America grows more and more attractive. Japan has suffered a gut-wrenching decade of recession that leveled the go-go economy of the 80s like a Tokyo earthquake. The keiretsu, or giant corporations, which had always served as cradle-to-grave caretakers of the salaryman, have laid off tens of thousands of workers. Legions of homeless men now fill Tokyo's parks, leaving little room for kids to play ball. (Though in Japan, the displaced sweep the ground in front of their tidy blue tarp shelters every morning.) The security once promised to everyone who went to school and showed up for work is a thing of the past. So, too, are the traditions that kept ballplayers from seeking a better deal. Young people now encourage their stars to head west. "Little Matsui should go to the major leagues," says Daisuke Ito, a twentysomething hotel worker and former high school shortstop from Sapporo. "Its good for the country to show they can play with the best." Hideki Matsui, the former Yomiuri Giant who's been described in Japan as Cal Ripken, Michael Jordan, John Elway and Bill Bradley rolled into one, has only grown in stature by leaving. His mug is all over national ads, and a rock band called The Godzilla Spirits performs in Pinstriped No.55 jerseys. "If he hadn't gone," Whiting says, "people would have said he was a wimp."

Still, saying goodbye isn't easy. Every aspect of a Japanese athlete's life is scrutinized, especially the decision to bolt for the bigs. (Nomo, Ichiro and Kaz Sasaki have been hounded with such tabloid tenacity that each has boycotted the Japanese media.) For two years, while Kazuo toyed with asking the Lions to post him, giving MLB teams a chance to buy his rights, the press pumped out rumors of who was interested and for how much, even speculating on how his extended family's finances might sway his decision. Though Matsui remains on good terms with the media, what did affect him were the unwritten silent agreements that bind Japanese companies and their employees. This is a culture that still values authority. And it was that ethos, more than anything, that kept him from leaving the Lions sooner. "I didn't want to get in a fight with them over posting," he says." I wanted to be loyal to them." (Not exactly play me or trade me.) Even after deciding it was time to go, he dallied in announcing his departure, pondering whether to represent Japan in the Olympics next summer. "I think it worked out better, to take that time and get through the confusion," he says. "Because by the end I was more certain." (Not exactly show me the money.)

But the players will get bolder. And better. At the Asian qualifier, Matsui wasn't even the best performer on his team, a group of all-stars drawn from Japan's two leagues (there are 12 clubs). Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome showed great wheels and bat speed, lining the ball off every wall in the dome. He'd have fit right in on the Marlins. Then there are the pitchers, led by Daisuke Matsuzaka, who throws in the mid-90s with sick movement, and Tsuyoshi Wada, a guy with eight different curveballs, according to one scout. Meanwhile, the Koreans and Taiwanese, with less-developed pro leagues, are watching prospects bloom into big leaguers. And since Maoists banned baseball from 1960 to 1974, China is just starting to relearn the game, soliciting help from MLB, which paid for Jim Lefebvre to manage the national team. Asia really has arrived. Scouts marvel at the work ethic, the diversity of talent, the intensity. "And the pitchers all throw strikes," says one. The only thing missing is American-style power. As a Japanese baseball exec puts it: "Well give you 200 pitchers, Ichiro, Kazuo. You give us some home run hitters."

But the cultural exchange doesn't please everyone. Attendance and ratings have drifted downward in the Japanese leagues, partly because of the economy, and partly because the country's youth have discovered soccer, skateboards and video games. Some big corporations behind the leagues, like the supermarket chain that owns the Japan Series-champion Daiei Hawks, are in dire financial straits. Daiei gave its popular power-hitting third baseman, Hiroki Kokubo, to the Yomiuri Giants this fall for nothing—no trade, no draft pick, no player to be named—just to unload his contract. And while four of the nation's five most popular sports figures play baseball, there's some concern that the game will die the same slow death as the Negro Leagues did after integration. None of which is about to halt MLBs global march. It's one of the few areas that give Bud Selig something to razz Paul Tagliabue about. U.S. fans don't care where Pedro Martinez comes from as long as his fastball's moving. So what if Ichiro is Japanese? He can rake. MLB is seeding grassroots programs from Shanghai to Cape Town. This year, four minor leaguers came from Germany. Bobby Valentine, who just took a job managing the Chiba Lotte Marines, sees a brighter if different future for Asia. "They have to create another major league division where there are teams in Japan, Taiwan and Korea," he says. "Players have to get traded there, sign as free agents, and the winner from that division has to enter into this round-robin. Now it's a two-country World Series, played in North America." Sound crazy? Eight years ago, during his first managing stint in Japan, Bobby V was laughed at for calling Ichiro one of the five best players in the world. Whatever form it takes, more cross-pollination is inevitable, and not just in baseball. Asia is simply too big, too ambitious and too prosperous not to assert itself in our sports-scape. The NBA has 314 million TV households in China, thanks largely but not solely to Yao Ming. Korea's rivalry with Japan, and its growing prominence in baseball and soccer, promises more major leaguers and World Cup successes. A 7'3" Korean teen named Ha Seung-jin showed up at the Asian hoops championships, where Yao is said to have told him, "See you in the NBA." Taiwan has already sent two players, outfielder Chen Chin-feng and pitcher Kuo Hong-chih, to the Dodgers 40-man roster. And Thailand is just now starting to produce world-class competitors in golf and tennis. The secret of Asia's success is simple: combine a large population, a love of competition and a hellacious work ethic and, hey, you've got players. Throw in the sons and daughters of Asian-American immigrants, and you've got even more.

IT'S A hoary cliché, but sports really do cross boundaries. So does money. In Tokyo a few weeks ago, some 300 eager, mostly Japanese Jerry Maguire wannabes sat in on a seminar sponsored by the sports agency SFX. Not one of them snickered when Rob Urbach, the agency's executive vice president, told them, "Sports is a universal language."

A language that's exchanging vocabularies across the Pacific. Just look at what's happened in baseball. Twenty years ago, Japanese ballplayers trained year-round, looking down on lazy Americans. Now, most big leaguers start working out a month after the season ends, if not sooner. Then look at Kazuo Matsui. He has a healthy respect for his national pastime, including its cautious nature. Against Korea, he twice came up with no outs and a runner on second. Both times he had the green light to swing away; both times he bunted, sacrificing successfully his first trip, then fouling off two attempts in his next at-bat before advancing the runner with a sacrifice fly. "It was a tight game," he says. "We needed the win." But like other athletes of his generation, and more and more young people in his country, he is also intent on finding his own path. He scoffs at old-school Japanese overtraining, where ruthless coaches would put players through tortures like the 1,000 fungo drill, hitting them ground balls until they dropped. "Maybe 100, but not 1,000," Matsui says. "What's important is your concentration level when you practice. I don't like being tired in vain. It doesn't work." As he charts his path to America, Matsui has one overriding desire: To learn from playing with the great players. "I want to take what's best from both places." Twenty years ago, that would have been a joke in America, a sacrilege in Japan. Now? Its Next.