Commentary

Ex-Yankee Matsui used to limelight

Updated: April 12, 2010, 9:37 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

NEW YORK -- The journalists line up along the wall outside the manager's office 3 hours before every home game.

When it's time, the first Japanese reporter moves 50 feet to the media's version of the on-deck circle -- in this case under the flat-screen TV next to Torii Hunter's locker -- while he waits for Hideki Matsui to arrive. The Los Angeles Angels' designated hitter conducts eight to 10 individual interviews every pregame, reporters going from the line to the on-deck circle to Matsui's locker, one by one. Matsui calmly answers questions as he peels off his civilian clothes and pulls on his uniform.

After every game, Matsui addresses the throng together, about 45 strong.

"He is always kind to us," said Taro Abe of Tokyo Chunichi Sports. "Even when people come that he has never met or seen, he treats them exactly the same. He never gets rude or impatient."

The system was worked out between the Angels' media relations crew and Matsui's two handlers to keep the clubhouse as uncluttered as possible. It resembles a line of pilgrims seeking advice from a holy man.

The Angels have slowly gotten to know Matsui, a man with patience bordering on Zen.

His impression on the field has been immediate and loud: a .370 batting average, two home runs, a team-high five RBIs and game-winning hits in the Angels' only two victories. His effect in the clubhouse has been nearly silent, but not invisible.

"Just his presence, the way he walks around, the way he carries himself," Torii Hunter said. "People see the way he treats the media, with a lot of respect. He's very accessible. No matter what, he may not know the language that well, but at the same time people are still watching."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia hopes Matsui's younger teammates watch the way he approaches hitting.

"He's a student of the game," Scioscia said. "He's got a great mind. From the way he studies pitchers to the way he prepares is remarkable. He'll be a great mentor to a lot of our younger players."

Matsui's two months with the Angels have been played in the backwoods compared with the scrutiny he faced in his previous two professional stops. He's a three-time MVP of the Japanese Central League and a three-time champion with the Tokyo Giants in Japan. It took him seven seasons to win a World Series with the Yankees. He'll pick up his ring before Tuesday's Yankees home opener. The Angels just happen to be in town.

Some major league players crack in the heat lamp of New York. Matsui found it fairly tame.

"The tension level was much more pronounced in Japan," Matsui said through his interpreter. "When you look at the Yankees, a lot of other players are more competitive and have more attention on them, so I never really felt it."

Matsui's ability to insulate himself from pressure could help him reach his stated goal of 10 seasons in the major leagues, presuming his arthritic left knee cooperates. He's open to finishing his career in Anaheim.

"As long as the conditions don't get worse, I think I should be fine," Matsui said. "If I simply can't put up numbers anymore, that's a different story. It'd be nice to put up numbers so the ballclub would want me to stay."

Matsui can converse in English, but he prefers to conduct his interviews with an interpreter. His answers are largely bland and general. The Japanese reporters often have to scramble to find quotes from other sources, because Matsui reveals very little about his personal life.

What is he expecting from the New York crowds when his name is announced Tuesday?

"Honestly, I don't know how the crowd's going to react," Matsui said. "Regardless of what happens, I'm looking forward to going to New York."

Did the seven years feel like forever before he won his first World Series after signing with the Yankees?

"It felt like it was just within reach, but just took awhile to get there," Matsui said.

Did he feel insulated from the New York pressure because of his limited ability to speak English?

"Not really. Obviously, not being able to fully speak the language, there's always a barrier, but I was able to pretty much communicate with everybody. I never really felt that insulation," he said.

Matsui and Hunter went to dinner twice in spring training and discovered they had met before: at the 1992 Goodwill Games in Seoul, South Korea. Hunter was a 16-year-old center fielder and Matsui was an 18-year-old third baseman.

Bobby Abreu is Matsui's teammate for the second time. They were together on the Yankees from 2006 to '08. Abreu thinks Matsui has the perfect personality to thrive in New York. He predicts a rousing ovation for the 2009 World Series MVP Tuesday afternoon.

"He's one of those guys, so calm," Abreu said. "Everybody respects him and he respects everybody. Whenever he talks to you, he talks to you with respect."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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