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Matsui open to playing 'somewhere else'

11/26/2003

Kazuo Matsui was voted the best shortstop ever in Japan by the Japanese media, but he says he would switch positions if that's what it takes to play in the Major Leagues.

"I've only played as a shortstop, but I don't have an unhealthy attachment to it," Matsui said in his first interview with an American reporter since announcing his intention to play in the U.S. next season. "I would play somewhere else if it helps the team."

That leaves the Yankees in contention for the 28-year-old switch-hitting speedster. Other teams reportedly interested are the Mariners, Dodgers, Mets and Orioles.

All fall, speculation in New York has centered on the Yankees signing the Japanese free agent, who spent his career with the Seibu Lions and is no relation to the Yanks' Hideki Matsui. That would set in motion a chain of position changes in the Bronx, with Alfonso Soriano moving from second base to the outfield to open up a spot for Kaz Matsui.

But that doesn't mean Derek Jeter's job is safe, at least in Matsui's eyes. Nor is any other big-league shortstop, for that matter.

Wherever he ends up, Matsui would eventually like to return to shortstop. "My ambition would be to get my old position back."

A 5-foot-9, 183-pounder who has a 30-homer, 30-steal season, a career .309 batting average and four Japanese gold gloves, Matsui would be the first infielder to make the jump to the majors, following in the footsteps of pitchers Hideo Nomo and Kazuhiro Sasaki and outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

In October, Kazuo Matsui took a clandestine trip to New York to watch a playoff game in Yankee Stadium. He said it was a fact-finding mission to get a sense of the U.S.

"I didn't want to do it without seeing a major-league game," he says. "It was just amazing. The excitement was something I had never seen in Japan. You could tell the fans were very serious about it."

A few weeks later, he led off and played shortstop for the Japanese national team, which went undefeated in qualifying for the Olympics at the Asian championship tournament in Sapporo the first week of November.

He called playing on the team the fulfillment of a dream, and he considered staying in Japan for one more year so he could represent his country in Athens.

"I thought about it a lot," he said. "I had never been selected for the national team, and my body expressed my emotion out on the field. It was an honor."

But after consulting with his wife following the tournament, he decided it was time, after 10 years with Seibu, to accept a new challenge. He says he thinks he can adjust to the U.S. without feeling too homesick.

"The U.S. has so many Japanese people and restaurants," he says, "I think I can feel at home when I want to."

Though he's clear about his goals, including the ultimate one of playing shortstop in the majors, he says he has set no timetable on deciding what team he'll play for.

Nor will he predict what kind of numbers he'll put up next year.

"It's hard to imagine an answer to that right now," he says. "It depends on my role. I could be hitting first or second in the lineup, or I could be seventh or eighth, depending on what the team wants from me. I'll just have to wait and see what's needed."