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Once a young phenom, Matsui now a veteran leader for upstart Eagles

by Jason Coskrey

The plays aren’t as flashy or spectacular as they used to be, but Kazuo Matsui still makes them.

His 37-year-old body doesn’t move the way it did when he was younger, but the former Pacific League MVP still does enough to warrant his place with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

At one time, Matsui may have been the most physically talented player in Japan. That was while he was tearing up the Pa League for the Seibu Lions; before the disappointing years in New York or the World Series run in Colorado.

These days, Matsui spreads his influence through his words and amiable clubhouse demeanor. He’s leading the charge for the Eagles not through his skills, but with the wisdom and experience gained from nearly two decades as a professional baseball player.

Ask any of Rakuten’s players, and they’ll tell you, Matsui is the team’s leader. He has the respect of the clubhouse, and he’s doing his best to help create a culture of winning in Sendai.

“The guy is a professional. He’s the leader of the team,” Eagles pitcher Darrell Rasner told the Japan Times. “It’s fun playing with him. He keeps things light in the clubhouse. He jokes around with us, and keeps the Japanese guys loose as well. He’s the captain, he’s done a great job.”

Once among the flashiest of Japanese players — in both play and appearance — Matsui has slid easily into the role of veteran and mentor. He’s hitting just .235 this season, though he leads Rakuten with 13 doubles and is fourth with 25 RBIs, but is contributing in other ways, such as sharing his wealth of knowledge with his teammates.

“The No. 1 goal is to win,” Matsui told the Japan Times on Sunday. “I also want to go through the season without many injuries. In this business, you have to get results, and I want to help achieve that.”

After a shaky start to the season, the results have begun to come. Rakuten has flourished during the interleague campaign, currently sitting second in the standings with a 13-7 mark, a half-game behind the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

“Our pitchers have been doing well,” Matsui said. “We’ve gotten good pitching, and our hitters have also come through. The environment in the dugout is one where we always feel like we can win. We are getting runners on base, and AJ (Andruw Jones) and Casey (McGehee) can create chances as well as drive in runs, and that’s been really big.”

Matsui is in his third season with Rakuten. He was a star before the team even existed, having already been named to seven PL Best Nine teams and the owner four Gold Gloves during his years as a shortstop for Seibu (1995-2003) before the Eagles began play in 2005.

He was the PL MVP in 1998 — hitting .311 with nine home runs, 58 RBIs, 43 stolen bases and an .812 on-base plus slugging percentage — and produced one of the best-ever seasons by a Japanese shortstop in 2002, batting .332 with 36 homers, 87 RBIs, 33 stolen bases, a 1.006 OPS, and league highs in doubles (46) and triples (6).

Matsui decided to make the jump to the majors following the 2003 season and was the subject of a Sports Illustrated profile by Franz Lidz in which author Robert Whiting is quoted as saying, “Kazuo is the Alex Rodriguez of the Japanese game.”

Whatever similarities Matsui bore to A-Rod remained in Japan after he joined the Mets and embarked on a MLB career that, save for a resurgent 2007 season for the Colorado Rockies, fell short of expectations.

Matsui had trouble in the field and at the plate, hitting .267 with 32 home runs, 211 RBIs and 102 stolen bases in seven seasons with the Mets, Rockies, with whom he reached the 2007 World Series, and Houston Astros.

Matsui remains proud of what he’s been able to do, and he knows where he stands at this point in his career. Still, the one thing he hasn’t done yet is win a championship.

Matsui has reached the Japan Series three times and played in one World Series, but his teams were defeated in all four instances.

He isn’t likely to hang up his cleats for another few seasons, but for players at his age, retirement is no longer a far away notion. Before that day comes, Mastui hopes to finally cap his career with a title, and would love nothing more than to get the job done this year.

“I’ve been fortunate to have experienced so many things, both in Japan and the majors,” Matsui said. “Over there ( in MLB), I got to experience things that I hadn’t experienced in Japan. Now I’m with a new team and I want to win for this team.”