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Hot stove league time, fans. Or should that be the hot hibachi league here in Japan? Lots going on during the off-season, so let’s take a look at a few interesting happenings from last week.

Hideki Matsui returns to Japan.

The New York Yankees left fielder returned home to Tokyo on Nov. 22 with an American League Championship in his pocket but without a World Series ring on his finger or a Rookie of the Year trophy in his carry-on luggage. Overall, though,it was a pretty good year for the former Yomiuri Giants superstar.

No, he did not display the skills as the prolific home run hitter he was in Japan, dropping from the total of 50 he hit for Tokyo in 2002 to just 16, and his final batting average of .287 was somewhat disappointing. But he had 106 RBIs, played in all 163 games for the Yankees and did his part in the playoffs and World Series. Most importantly, he put away that first season in the majors and left the adjustments to the big leagues, the language and culture behind him. Next year should be a lot better.

About that Rookie of the Year thing, and the fact he was left off the ballot by some of the writers voting for the award, I think it’s probably better he did not win, despite what George Steinbrenner thinks. I’ve said all along, since Hideo Nomo won National League ROY with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, and again when Ichiro Suzuki was selected the American League’s top freshman in 2001, these guys should not be eligible.

Matsui is not a 22-year-old greenhorn just up from Triple-A. He’s a 29-year-old seasoned veteran of 10 years in Japanese baseball, having played the game at one of the highest levels. I think Major League Baseball is going to change this rule. It should recognize experienced free-agent (and posted) players coming from Japan for what they are and exclude them from “rookie” status.

Yankees considering Japan openers.

It appeared we were a few days from the official announcement saying the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics would open the 2004 American League season in Japan, but that all changed on Nov. 17 when it was revealed the Mariners decided to bail out, and the A.L. champ Yankees were being asked to consider the Tokyo tour.

Remember all those years during the decades of the 1980s and ’90s, when the Nippon Ham Fighters were partners with the Bronx Bombers and held the annual “Yankees Day” promotion at Tokyo Dome? I distributed free tickets from the Fighters to the foreign community in the Kanto area, and despite my explanation about the game being between the Fighters and another Pacific League team, fans often requested tickets “to see the Yankees play in Tokyo.”

Now, seeing the Yanks, live and in person at the Big Egg may finally become a reality, and the tickets won’t be free. Not by a long shot. The Nikkan Sports newspaper, in its Nov. 18 edition, led us to believe the editors had the whole thing figured out. “The Yankees are coming” read a colorful Japanese kanji equivalent of a banner headline, and the story predicted we’ll be seeing Matsui and Matsui, Big and Little, Hideki and Kazuo.

Fact is, the Yankees still have to approve the March 30-31 cherry blossom series in Tokyo and, at last look, Kazuo Matsui had not signed with the Yankees or any other team.

And what about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? I have not seen or heard anything about what the Yankees’ anticipated opponent team thinks about making the long trip from St. Petersburg to Suidobashi.

On Monday, Nov. 24, I checked both the New York and Tampa Web sites and, while the Yankees home page carried the Japan openers story by mlb.com writer Barry Bloom, I could not find any mention of Japan, Tokyo or opening the 2004 season overseas on the Devil Rays’ site.

Tsuyoshi Shinjo joins Nippon Ham Fighters.

After three years in the major leagues (with some time also spent in the minors) in North America, Tsuyoshi Shinjo will return to Japanese baseball. He is not coming back to his former team, the Hanshin Tigers. He will not be joining the Yomiuri Giants as had been rumored, and he will not be playing for the Yokohama BayStars who had expressed interest in signing the former New York Mets and San Francisco Giants outfielder.

In fact, Shinjo is not even going to a Central League team. He’s signed with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and he should be giving that club an instant lift in talent and ticket sales as it establishes its franchise base in Sapporo. While he was a colorful player in New York and California and a sometimes regular, he was an All-Star here with Hanshin and is expected to recover that status with the Fighters.

Meanwhile . . .

Akihito Muramatsu joins Orix BlueWave.

Why would a free agent, with reasonable value, want to go from first place to last place? Muramatsu, though he missed most of the final two months of the 2003 season with an injury, was a key member of the Japan Series champion Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. The center fielder hit .324, had 32 stolen bases and led the Pacific League in triples with 13, despite playing only 109 games of the 140-game season.

It used to be the free agents went from the Pa League to a Central League club, or Central to Central, most often to the Giants or Tigers. Perhaps Shinjo and Muramatsu are starting a trend here by signing as free agents with second division Pacific League teams outside the Tokyo area, and it will be interesting to see if more guys follow the lead.

With Bobby Valentine back at the helm of the Chiba Lotte Marines and the playoff format set to involve the top three teams in the standings, 2004 will be a pivotal year for the Pacific circuit. Now they have Shinjo, and Muramatsu stays in the P.L. fold.

Good for them.

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