Matsui's introduction draws ton of attention

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

NEW YORK -- Even the mayor showed up to greet Godzilla.

For Hideki Matsui's formal introduction to New York, he was given a news conference befitting a head of state: Hundreds of reporters and dozens of camera crews filled a hotel meeting room, Yankees manager Joe Torre interrupted his Hawaiian vacation and Roger Clemens came up from Texas.

As he put on the famous pinstripes for the first time, he turned around to proudly display his usual No. 55. Flashes popped and shutters clicked, and Matsui grinned widely, giving thumbs-up.

With a uniform number like that, some Yankees' fans might be expecting a double Joe DiMaggio. But the three-time MVP of Japan's Central League only has to hit enough to please owner George Steinbrenner, who is paying Japan's biggest baseball star $21 million over the next three seasons.

Things can change quickly in the Bronx, where Steinbrenner is still fuming from the first-round playoff loss to Anaheim. The Boss' latest pronouncement was that Torre's staff has ''got to do better'' and star shortstop Derek Jeter has ''got to focus on what's important.''

The last Hideki who played in the Bronx -- pitcher Hideki Irabu -- arrived as a star and left, in Steinbrenner's words, as a ''fat ... toad.''

''It's tough to project when he's never played in this league before,'' Torre said. ''He's going to have to get adjusted. Robbie Alomar had trouble last year switching teams in the same country.''

Matsui isn't just a player, he's a symbol of Japanese baseball. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sent him a handwritten note welcoming him to the city, and David Letterman invited him to read the ''Top 10'' list on Tuesday night's show. The news conference was televised live in the United States on the Yankees' YES Network and beamed back to Japan, where it was 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Yoshihiro Nishida, Japan's counsel general in New York, was on the podium. In all, 12 people sat alongside Matsui on the dais -- four more than the Yankees' current total of starting pitchers.

''Spend a lot of money,'' Mayor Michael Bloomberg told him. ''Goodness, we need the sales-tax revenue. If George is ever going to get a new stadium, you'll have to spend a lot.''

Bloomberg, who grew up as a fan of the Boston Red Sox, mispronounced the new star's name, calling him ''Hi-DEEK-i'' rather than ''Hi-DECK-i'' and also stumbled over the name of Matsui's former team, the Yomiuri Giants. While Bloomberg might be a billionaire, he knew his place in the pecking order Tuesday.

''Hideki, let me remind you, I work for $1 a year,'' the mayor said.

Matsui, speaking through a translator, said he would learn English. For now, his best buddy on the Yankees will be second baseman Alfonso Soriano, a Dominican who played in Japan as a teenager and learned the language.

''I would like to try as hard as possible to be one of the team members of the New York Yankees and to be accepted in the city,'' Matsui said.

Matsui arrived Thursday from Japan to take a physical and complete details of the contract, and planned to return home Wednesday. One of the first things he did in New York was to visit the World Trade Center site.

''I still can't believe something like that happened,'' he said. ''It does hurt my heart.''

On his first day in pinstripes, he gave all the right answers.

''Today has been one of the happiest days of my life,'' he said. ''To be able to come to this beautiful city, New York, and to be able to play for the Yankees, the most beloved team in the city, I am really happy to be here. I want to do everything I can to help the Yankees win the World Series championship.''

Torre took a redeye flight from Maui to St. Louis, then caught a connection to White Plains, went home for a shower, shave and a change into coat and tie, and went straight to the news conference. The manager heads right back to Hawaii on Friday for two more weeks of sun and golf.

''I thought it was important,'' Torre said when asked why he came home for the day.

The 28-year-old Matsui probably will be a left fielder for the Yankees, adding a bat that has produced .304 career average with 332 homers and 889 RBIs in 1,268 games. He has hit .300 or more in four straight seasons with at least 36 homers and 95 RBIs, and he's walked 100 or more times in four of the last five years, and his addition makes it likely New York will lead the major leagues in runs once again.

The Yankees' clubhouses in Tampa, Fla., and the Bronx figure to be even more crowded, with dozens of Japanese reporters recording Godzilla's every move while Torre figures out how to make eight starting pitchers fit into five slots.

With his left-handed swing and Yankee Stadium's short porch, he could become as big a star as Jeter, Soriano, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and all those starting pitchers. But Matsui wants to be more than a ballplayer.

''If I could somehow act as an ambassador between the two countries in terms of baseball,'' he said, ''I would really be honored.''

Torre looks at Matsui and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki -- the 2001 AL MVP -- and says the influx of talent from Japan is improving the level of play.

''The game got better in 1947, too, when a guy named Jackie Robinson started changing things,'' he said.

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