So far, so good. New York Yankees player Hideki Matsui made it back to Japan, apparently in one piece, after a whirlwind trip to the Big Apple that included evasion of a large Japanese media contingent waiting for him at Newark Liberty Airport, an appearance at Yankee Stadium, the well-attended and media-smothered press conference at the Marriott Hotel, those spectacular publicity photos of him in Yankee pinstripes with Times Square as the backdrop and his guest spot on “The Late Show with David Letterman” to read that evening’s Top Ten list. He seemed to be smiling through all of it.
Matsui should have just enough time to recover before heading to Florida and spring training in a couple of weeks. Following their exhibition season, the Yanks go north to begin the regular season in Toronto on March 31, and that opening game against the Blue Jays will begin at 9:05 a.m. (Japan time) on Tuesday, April 1. Do you think it will be televised in Japan? Is the sky blue?
Following a three-game series at SkyDome, the Bronx Bombers return to Florida for three more games as visitors to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Then “Godzilla” and company play their first home game of the year on April 7, hosting the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium. Starting time is 2:05 a.m. on Tuesday, April 8, in Japan. Do you think that one will be on TV here live? Is grass green?
Offseason press conferences, photo shoots and TV appearances are one thing, but the real test, of course, will come when the 28-year-old “rookie” plays the first game on the final day of March. Will he still be smiling broadly then and keep grinning all season?
Another former Yomiuri Giants outfielder says Matsui should be OK, but there will be a lot of adjusting to do. Warren Cromartie patrolled center at Korakuen Stadium and the Tokyo Dome from 1984 through 1990, and he figures Hideki may find it tough playing the vast green acres in left field at Yankee Stadium. After having played right field for three years and center for six seasons for the Kyojin, Matsui may at first be confused, said Cromartie by phone from Miami.
“The ball comes off the bat with a different spin when hit to left,” he points out. “You’ll be seeing Matsui do the cha-cha out there a few times early on.”
He was referring to a fielder starting one way on a ball, then quickly shuffling his feet to reverse his field after realizing the ball is going the other way. In Yankee Stadium, balls hit to the gap in left-center tend to roll awhile to the 402-feet sign 123 meters from home. Cro also noted Matsui will get the personal attention of coach Lee Mazzilli, so that should help. “But he’ll still be the doing the cha-cha.”
Cromartie also said Matsui will have to get used to hitting sixth or even seventh in a power-packed, superstar-studded lineup, but having Joe Torre as his manager will be a great advantage. However, if he doesn’t get off to a good start, the pressure could come fast and hard from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. You may recall the unpredictable boss heaped praise on another Japanese Hideki — Irabu — when that pitcher joined the Yanks in 1997. Three years later, Steinbrenner was calling Irabu “that fat toad” and had him shipped off to Montreal.
Sportscaster Charlie Steiner, covering the Marriott introduction of Matsui to the press, told a Japanese media person Matsui will be booed when he makes an error (doing the cha-cha?) or strikes out in a key situation, but that he should shake it off.
“When he hits that game-winning homer, they’ll cheer him so loud, he’ll forget he had ever even been booed,” Steiner said.
So, will Matsui be able to make the adjustment to the pinstripes and pitching, the glitz and glitter, the language and culture, the rat-race travel and media blitz, left field and batting sixth (or seventh)? Can he cope with the pressure, or will there even be much pressure with which to cope?
Halfway through the season, will he be among the American League leaders in batting average, home runs and runs batted in? Or will he be struggling with disappointing numbers? I think he can do it. My prediction is that, as of July 14, the day the All-Star break begins, Matsui will have posted a .317 batting average with 23 homers and 59 RBIs. That is, of course, barring injury sustained while doing the cha-cha or something else, but the guy has not missed a game since 1994.
What do you think? Let’s have a little contest. Send me your forecast for Matsui’s All-Star break statistics, and I’ll give a prize of a NewYork Yankees jersey to whoever comes the closest. Send me what you think will be Matsui’s totals for average, home runs and RBIs on July 14, and the winner will be the one whose total comes closest to zero after we subtract your numbers from his actual stats. For example, if, on July 14, Matsui is batting .289 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs, my score would be minus-28 on the average, minus-seven for home runs and minus-three for RBIs for a total of minus-38. Got it?
Send your predictions to me by fax to (0422) 21-9342 or e-mail to email@example.com. Deadline is March 15, and I will file away the entries until the All-Star break, then pull them out and determine the winner.
That MLB All-Star Game, by the way, will be played in Chicago, and I wonder if Matsui will be in it, as a starter, following the accomplishment of Japanese predecessors Hideo Nomo in 1995 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 in starting the All-Star Game as first-year major leaguers. Do you think that game would be televised in Japan? Is the sun hot?
Finally this week, my prediction for the Super Bowl next week. I got it right last year in picking New England over St. Louis. This time, I’ll say Tampa Bay 34, Oakland 31.
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