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Day of reckoning looming for Big Matsui, Little Matsui, Iwamura

by Wayne Graczyk

Matsui, Matsui and Iwamura.

No, not a Tokyo law firm but three Japanese players at a crossroads in their careers with a big decision to make for 2011: Do they continue trying to extend their stays in North America?

Or is it time to call it a U.S. career and return home to finish their playing days in Japan?

All three have fulfilled their dream of playing in the major leagues, they have all participated in the World Series and one was a World Series MVP. All are in their 30s.

Infielder Akinori Iwamura, born Feb. 9, 1979, was a power hitter with the Yakult Swallows, one of the team’s cleanup batters who had home run season totals of 44, 30 and 32 in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively. He drove in more than 100 runs twice and decided to test his skills in the majors in 2007.

The Yakult club honored his request to be posted for MLB service, and he was acquired by the Tampa Bay Rays but underwent a huge image change that transformed him from a slugging third baseman to a banjo-hitting middle infielder.

Playing second base, he hit only 13 homers for the Rays in 2007-08 but batted a solid .279, played great defense and joined his teammates in the 2008 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2009, he was injured, playing only 80 games between Tampa and Triple-A Durham.

Last winter, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates but again found himself in the minors at Indianapolis this year. He was released on Sept. 8, but signed with the Oakland Athletics five days later.

Still only 31, Iwamura should follow the lead of others such as Tadahito Iguchi and Kenji Johjima and return home to play for the Swallows or another team in Japan.

Kazuo Matsui, born Oct. 23, 1975, was the 1998 Pacific League MVP, and he hit 36 home runs in 2002 and 33 in 2003 for the Seibu Lions as their shortstop. He exercised his free agency rights and jumped to the New York Mets in 2004.

I can recall him telling the press at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in December of 2003 how excited he was to be going to the Big Apple and how confident he was of success there. The Mets welcomed him and gave him the shortstop position, moving the highly-touted Jose Reyes to second base.

However, Matsui never got comfortable in Gotham, was booed out of New York by the impatient Mets fans and was eventually traded to the Colorado Rockies in June of 2006.

Ironically, it was at the second base position where Matsui found success, however brief, in Denver a year later. He hit .288 and played for the Rox in the 2007 World Series against the Boston Red Sox and his former Seibu teammate, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

I thought he should have stayed with Colorado and made a long-term double play combo with the young shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, but Matsui used free agent status to sign with the Houston Astros. He never did much in Texas and, this season, after only 71 at-bats and with a .141 batting average and just one stolen base, Matsui was released by the Astros on May 19.

Again ironically, he found himself back in Colorado Springs, that is, in Triple-A where he finished out the year. He will be 35 next month, and there is no doubt in my mind “Little Matsui” should also seek to play in Japan again in 2011.

The eight-year major league career of Hideki Matsui, born June 12, 1974, may come to and end next month, according to Japanese sports papers which have suggested his stint with the Los Angeles Angels might be over after just one year with that club.

“Big Matsui” was a high school star in Japan and a key member of the Yomiuri Giants for 10 years; a three-time Central League MVP who left as a free agent after hitting 50 homers in 2002 for the Japan Series championship team.

He enjoyed his glory years with the New York Yankees and was the 2009 World Series MVP. There was also that meaningful homecoming with the Yankees season-opening series at Tokyo Dome in 2004.

But it is said he cannot play defense in the outfield every day any more because of chronic knee problems, so his future will be mostly as a DH, and that limits him to playing in the American League or maybe Japan’s Pacific League.

Matsui had told me before leaving Yomiuri eight years ago (when he was still 27 and apparently had no knee problems) he was most likely going to the majors but, if he did not get the right offer, he would remain in Japan. However, playing for a team other than the Kyojin was not an option.

“It’s either the majors or I stay with the Giants,” he said at the time. But his attitude and his locked-in connection with Yomiuri may have changed with age and time.

So, if he were to return to Japan to play in 2011, could he play for the Rakuten Eagles, Seibu Lions, Softbank Hawks or another Pa League club?

The possibilities for him would seem to include staying with the Angels, moving to another AL team or coming back to Japan to the PL as a DH. At 36, Hideki has some serious thinking to do about his future.

He should continue playing in the majors as long as he can, but if he decides to go home, that would be exciting, too, and the fans of whatever Japanese team he might join would welcome him.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com