LOS ANGELES — In the sports-happy, internationally oblivious country of the United States, probably more people know who Hideki Matsui is than who Junichiro Koizumi is.

Matsui is the star left fielder of the New York Yankees baseball team. Koizumi is only the Japanese prime minister. But for a shining few minutes late last week in New York, you could very well make the case that Matsui was the most important Japanese celebrity in the world.

The dramatic situation was this. It was early in a wild game against the hated Boston Red Sox baseball club. A sharp line drive was slammed into left field in the general direction of Matsui. An excellent fielder as well as batter, a Yankee star and a baseball superstar in Japan, Matsui charged the liner without fear, lunged for it and rolled over onto his left wrist and arm.

The capacity crowd at historic Yankee Stadium in the Bronx gasped at the sight of the fallen warrior on the ground unable to move because the pain was so great. The team doctor and teammates ran to his aid, but nothing could be done. The arm was broken, the star had to leave the game, the recovery period is said to require months.

But here is where Matsui exceeded his greatness as an individual player with great dignity as a human being and as a team player. In the age of the coddled athlete, the widely overpaid athlete, the agent-protected athlete and the totally obnoxious superstar athlete, Matsui from Japan did something that hardly anyone could remember another athlete doing in a long time. He apologized.

He publicly apologized to his manager for the injury that would keep him out of the team’s lineup indefinitely, and he apologized to his fellow players for having to withdraw from the front lines of the battle to allow his broken left wrist to heal.

The apology was so unusual and unexpected and uncharacteristic, it became a major news story in the American media. The New York Times devoted a major feature to the Matsui apology. Countless news organizations picked up the story for the astonishing if almost unprecedented development that it represented: a superstar athlete and celebrity actually saying he was sorry.

Apologies are as rare in the U.S. as they may be unexceptional in Japan. In this country even major newspapers fail to apologize to a citizen who has clearly been wronged by a story. To date, nearly 2,500 Americans have died in the Iraq war (and who knows how many Iraqis), and nothing remotely close to an apology has been issued by the perpetrators of this unnecessary calamity.

In Los Angeles, a driver on a cell phone will drift mentally off into Mars, make a serious life-endangering driving error, cause a multicar pileup, yet never utter an apology? More likely you’ll hear first from his lawyer or his insurance company.

It was against this stony-faced culture of arrogance that the Matsui “I’m sorry” rang across America like the ringing of some new liberty bell, freeing us from a culture of smugness. Unprompted by media advisers, unforced by barristers, it offered the feeling of sincerity and of coming deep from the heart.

In American baseball lore, few phrases or gestures are memorable enough to last longer than the next newspaper edition. Perhaps the most famous gesture of all time is Yankee slugger Babe Ruth’s alleged gesture to the bleachers right before hitting one more or less exactly there.

Another is Lou Gehrig’s famous “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” phrase memorably delivered in Yankee Stadium during a ceremony saluting the great player’s struggle against a fatal disease.

Matsui’s apology probably will not go down in history to that degree. But to this ear, it was memorable. Like Ruth or Gehrig before him, Matsui, the happy but humble warrior from Japan, gave a public and moving demonstration that reflected the pride of a Yankee.

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