Ichiro, Matsui hit the center stage

With Ichiro and Hideki Matsui facing off in the Bronx, all of Japan will be watching with great interest.

Originally Published: April 30, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

The greater Tokyo metropolitan area has more people than any other city on the planet, with a population density (17,500 people per square mile) that is more than three times higher than New York City. The city is so crowded that the subway system employs uniformed men in white gloves to shove passengers into the trains so that the doors can close. It is so crowded that a friend of mine who regularly rode the Tokyo subway said he counted 16 people touching him at one time.

The greatest concentration of Japanese, however, is in Yankee Stadium this week where reporters have gathered to cover the first major-league games between Ichiro and Hideki Matsui.

Japanese fans
Japanese fans came out in droves to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night.

"I don't know what will happen,'' Ichiro said of the media onslaught, "but hopefully those days will go by fast.''

Don't count on it. Ichiro vs. Matsui is the most anticipated meeting of Japanese icons since Godzilla battled Mothra. Ichiro vs. Godzilla is also falling during Golden Week, when many Japanese workers are on vacation and able to watch the games without skipping work.

This is power vs. speed and finesse. The man named after a fire-breathing monster against a man who keeps his bats in a humidor. The beloved/hated Yankee/Yomiuri Giant against the ultra-cool Mariner. Matsui vs. the man who paved the way for Matsui.

Ichiro declined to take credit for clearing the path for Matsui to come to the majors, but it sure wasn't Tsuyoshi Shinjo who convinced the Yankees that a Japanese position player was worth a $21 million contract. Ichiro led the American League in hitting and won the MVP award two years ago, then followed it up with a .321 average last year.

"None of the Japanese players who hit the longball have come over here,'' Ichiro said through a translator. "I am in awe of his determination to play here. He has a brave mind to come over here. I don't know him personally but what I heard about him is that his attitude toward baseball is great and sincere, so I hope he can have great years in coming years.

"But at the same time, looking at him as a Mariner -- the Yankees are a tough team to beat and we always want to beat him. So I don't want him to be successful (when we play) because we want to beat him.''

Ichiro and Matsui have much in common. The two were the best and most famous players in Japan. They both felt compelled to play and prove themselves in the U.S. And both, amazingly, have fathers who run a museum dedicated to their respective son. Now, what are the odds of that? I mean, it's not like there is a Barry Bonds and an Alex Rodriguez museum over here. And over there is a photo of five-year-old Barry ignoring his first reporter.

The Ichiro Museum, by the way, even has Ichiro's first retainer from his orthodonist. The only way Matsui's father could beat that is if he has Hideki's umbilical cord laying around somewhere.

The two players also are very different. Ichiro is guarded with reporters -- like Bonds, he traveled with his own p.r. people during last year's major-league tour of Japan -- while Matsui is much more open and outgoing. Ichiro is a slap hitter and superb outfielder. Matsui is a power hitter and an average outfielder.

There already is a rivalry growing between the two players. Back when both played in Japan, Ichiro once grumbled that "I could hit .400 and still Matsui would get more attention.'' And despite the gracious words expressed recently, Matsui and Ichiro appear to be, as gossip columnist Walter Winchell used to say, "Don't invite 'ems." In other words, they're not the biggest fans of each other.

Ichiro
Ichiro has a career .330 batting average in the major leagues.

Even though the two played against each other during All-Star games, the 1996 Japan series and last fall's major league All-Star tour of Japan and even though there is a photo of the two together at the Ichiro museum, Ichiro oddly said recently that he's never met or competed against Matsui. If they did get along, it would have been natural for Ichiro to offer Matsui some advice on playing in the majors last fall, but Ichiro's comments indicate no such conversations ever took place.

The two nearly faced each other as pitcher and batter during a Japan All-Star Game. Running out of pitchers, the Pacific League manager sent Ichiro to the mound to face Matsui. The Central League manager, however, considered it undignified and sent a pitcher to pinch-hit for Matsui.

"That could have been a good memory for me but it didn't happen,'' Ichiro said. "(But) had that happened, both of us would have had different fortunes and different paths than we've had and so I'm glad it didn't happen.''

So, this could get pretty interesting. Especially if Matsui's season is anything close to Ichiro's rookie year and the two face each other in the playoffs.

And it could get even more interesting next year when shortstop Kazuo Matsui is eligible for free agency. Little Matsui may be even better than Big Matsui.

One more Japanese note
There also is an interesting rivalry between the Mariners and the Yankees as to which will reign supreme in Japan. According to MLB International, the Yankees are the No.1 seller in official merchandise in every country -- except Japan, where the Mariners have been by far the most popular team. But now New York has Matsui and when the Yankees played on the west coast last week, their games bumped the Mariners.

Whether that continues remains to be seen, but Matsui does appear willing to market himself more than the reserved Ichiro. And just as Japanese companies have bought billboard space at Safeco Field, a Japanese company manufacturing heavy equipment took out a billboard in the upper deck in right field at Yankee Stadium, hoping it would be seen during many Godzilla blasts this season. One of his blasts sailed by the sign but as a friend in Japan e-mailed me, it's doubtful that even the most rabid Matsui fan watching the game was suddenly hit with an uncontrollable urge to buy a dump truck.

Boxscore lines of the week
Kevin Millwood threw a no-hitter while Alex Rodriguez went 5-for-5 and drove in six runs. But those weren't the most amazing lines of a very interesting day in baseball last Sunday, when one game ended in exactly two hours (Twins-White Sox), another lasted six hours and 20 innings (Marlins-Cardinals) and two featured five- and six-run rallies in the bottom of the ninth.

One of those rallies was Florida's when the Marlins scored five runs on three homers in the ninth against St. Louis, sending the game into extra innings. Make that, extra, extra, extra innings.

How long was the game? It was baseball's longest in a decade (the Twins and Cleveland went 22 innings in 1993). It was so long that Jim Edmonds' league-leading batting average dropped from .414 to .379. It was so long that the two teams used 15 pitchers who threw 622 pitches, allowed 35 hits and walked 21 batters. It was so long that neither team scored for 10 innings after Florida's five-run rally.

And it was so long that Fernando Vina was hitless in nine at-bats ... and the game still wasn't over. It isn't often that a batter goes 0-for-9. It's even rarer when one goes 0-for-10. After going hitless in his previous 12 at-bats (including his final three Saturday night), Vina avoided the exclusive 0-for-10 club by singling home the winning run in the 20th inning to give St. Louis the eventual victory.

Vina's line:

10 AB, 0 R, 1 H, 1 RBI

In a 25-hour span, the two teams played 29 innings, sent 236 batters to the plate and 21 pitchers to the mound.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
Dusty Baker manages against the Giants this week when the Cubs visit San Francisco, becoming the first manager since Dick Williams to manage against a team the year after taking it to the World Series. Williams managed the Athletics to the 1973 World Series, then signed with the Angels during the 1974 season. ... More unbelievably bad Tigers numbers: At last glance, Jeff Bagwell is one home run short (10) of matching the Tigers' total as a team (11). The Tigers' batting average (.182) is also barely higher than what National League pitchers are hitting (.150). Mike Maroth somehow went 0-6 in his team's first 21 games, but it wasn't all his fault -- Detroit scored just 10 runs in those six losses. The Tigers have scored 115 fewer runs than the Yankees. The Tigers aren't playing little ball either -- they have only five stolen bases and have been caught stealing nine times. ... The Marlins have stolen more bases (47) than the Blue Jays (4), Athletics (4), Phillies (5), Tigers (5), Mets (7), Indians (7) and White Sox (7) combined (39). ... The Phillies, by the way, have thrown out three of 28 basestealers. ... Despite moving into their new stadium, the Reds are being outdrawn by nine National Leagues teams, including the Padres. ... Congratulations and good luck to Rickey Henderson, one of our favorite players, who will make his debut with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League this week. When Rickey played his first minor-league game in 1976, Gerald Ford was president, Hank Aaron was Milwaukee's DH and two of Henderson's future employers, the Blue Jays and the Mariners, didn't exist.

From left field
Aside from this week's matchup between Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, the Japanese influence in the majors is beginning to become routine -- there now have been 17 Japanese players to reach the majors. Meanwhile, the Koreans are making their impact, especially with Byung-Hyun Kim in Arizona, Jung Bong in Atlanta, Hee Seop Choi (the first Korean position player) in Chicago and, of course, Chan Ho Park (the first Koran big leaguer) in Texas. And more are in the minors. The ever-expanding club of Korean major leaguers:

Player The skinny
Jung Bong Atlanta reliever is 2-0 with a 1.82 ERA
Hee Seop Choi First Korean position player off to a good start
Jin Ho Cho Was 2-6 with a 6.52 ERA with Boston in 1999-2000
Byung-Hyun Kim Korean closer returns to the starting role he relishes
Sun-Woo Kim So-so reliever with the Red Sox and Expos
Sang-Hoon Lee Pitched briefly with the Red Sox
Chan Ho Park First Korean in majors is struggling after signing big contract
Jae Weong Seo Pitching with the Mets this year

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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