Because of coverage of the invasion of Iraq, it feels as if we’re being spared the all-Matsui-all-the-time media blitz we were promised last fall when the former Yomiuri Giants slugger, Hideki Matsui, signed with the New York Yankees. We aren’t. Matsui madness is everywhere, but because the war has engaged much of the media’s attention it feels less intense than it really is.
All one has to do is look at NHK. Yankee games are given priority, not only over other Major League games that feature Japanese players, but over normal NHK programming. It helps that NHK has two satellite channels, and BS1 has been reserved for Major League Baseball.
There’s method to this madness. Last Monday, BS1 broadcast the Yankees vs. Devil Rays game in a digest version that prioritized Matsui’s participation, with general Yankee accomplishments given secondary attention and Devil Ray participation practically none. Immediately following the game, there was a further distillation that, again, concentrated on Matsui.
Then, at 10 p.m., there was the nightly recap of the day’s Major League games, which adhered to the same prioritizing criteria, though this time in the context of the entire Major Leagues: a half-hour about Matsui’s performance that day in the Devil Rays game, followed by increasingly shorter recaps of performances by other Japanese players, ending with 30 seconds of news about So Taguchi, who plays for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A farm team in Memphis (no video, only a baseball-card bromide of Taguchi). Leftover time was filled with news about other MLB games that didn’t involve Japanese, and then yet another 5-minute recap of Matsui’s day.
The pressurizing effect of making Matsui the center of attention in a professional sports enterprise that employs hundreds of players is easily felt by the average viewer. On the commercial stations, coverage is even more focused, specifically on Matsui’s success or failure as a home-run hitter. All sports-related media figures (and some who aren’t) have given their predictions on how many homers Matsui will deliver for the Yankees this season, thus increasing the pressure on him.
Just as unexpected resistance to U.S. forces in Iraq contributed to a feeling among the public that the war had been going on for months only a week after it started, Matsui’s failure to hit a home run just a week into the season made everyone in Japan anxious about his future. So Wednesday, when he finally hit one — a grand slam at the Yankees’ home opener with his parents attending, no less — one could sense a shudder of relief move through the archipelago. Coincidentally, Baghdad fell the same day.
Things were different two years ago when Ichiro Suzuki debuted with the Seattle Mariners. The Japanese weren’t expecting much. People’s expectations for Matsui are both more intense and more concentrated, but what really sets Matsui apart from Ichiro is Matsui’s relationship with the media. Ichiro, taking a page from Bob Dylan, was cagey with the army of journalists sent overseas to report his every move. His accomplishments seemed that much more impressive because he didn’t comment on them, and when he did he downplayed them. (Rumors have it that he’ll be friendlier this year, but that remains to be seen.)
Matsui cultivates the press, partly because he’s an agreeable guy, but mostly because he can afford to. He has been called a natural baseball player, one whose build and instincts make him good at what he does. Ichiro, it is always pointed out, has had to work hard to get to where he is; he can’t afford distractions.
Consequently, Matsui has become instrumental in increasing the pressure that’s being put on him. He writes an occasional letter to the Asahi Shimbun, but instead of discussing his new life in the United States or his impressions of professional baseball over there, he describes in detail his ever-changing batting strategy, with incredibly detailed analyses that show everyone he’s taking this home-run thing seriously.
The Americans assume he’ll need time to get acquainted with the game, but it’s a view that doesn’t get much play in Japan. If you listen to the bilingual commentary during Yankee games on NHK, the American play-by-play announcers talk about Matsui adjusting to American pitchers, while the Japanese commentators take the opposite tack: They talk about the American pitchers adjusting to Matsui.
Falling outside the scope of this tunnel vision is the fact that Matsui is a member of a team, and one that may not need him. Everyone agrees that Ichiro contributed to the success of the Mariners, and Japanese viewers became interested in the fortunes of the team by following Ichiro’s success because the two aspects were inextricable. But the Yankees already have sluggers.
Underlying the home-run vigil the Japanese media has organized is a feeling of anxiety that Matsui will not be extraordinary. And there is a floating suspicion that the Yankees acquired him for reasons other than his baseball skills: the team has already struck a deal with JAL to allow the airline to use the Yankee name.
In the end, Matsui could end up having a decent year and still be branded a disappointment. If so, he should take comfort in Taguchi’s example. The outfielder is currently the subject of Pia’s “Makeinu no Densetsu (The Legend of the Losing Dog)” column, a running series of interviews with people who are, in fact, successful in the sense that they’re doing what they want to do. Taguchi is no more a loser by playing in Triple A than Matsui would be if he didn’t hit as many home runs as he hit in Japan. They’d only be losers if they weren’t over there in the first place.