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Kazuo “Little” Matsui is set to be the next Japanese star to make a huge splash in the major leagues and become the latest toast of the town in New York.

He’s signed a lucrative contract with the Mets, donned his No. 25 black, blue and orange jersey, tried out his English-language skills at a high-profile press conference in a Manhattan hotel and struck the now apparently obligatory Times Square neon sign background photo pose.

I have no doubt, however, that Matsui would by now have become a member of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants if manager Tatsunori Hara had not stepped down. I believe Matsui was headed from Seibu Dome to Tokyo Dome until Hara resigned, and he then turned his sights directly to North America.

At the Dec. 10 New York media extravaganza, the former Seibu Lions star was asked who was his favorite player while growing up, and he replied it was Hara, a star third baseman for the Giants from 1981 to 1995.

Matsui also mentioned how much fun it had been playing in the most recent major league postseason Japan tour all-star series in 2002.

Hara was the manager of the All-Japan team and, coincidentally, the major league all-stars were piloted by Art Howe who will be Matsui’s manager with the Mets.

Matsui was strongly rumored to have had an interest in playing for Yomiuri but, after Hara suddenly announced in late September he was quitting “to take responsibility for the Giants’ poor showing” this season, Matsui’s attention focused more intently on testing the MLB free agent waters.

So, the Giants’ loss is the Mets’ gain, and Kaz Matsui will be playing shortstop, switch-hitting and stealing bases in the Big Apple, rather than the Big Egg, in 2004.

The Giants may have shot themselves in the foot by letting Hara go and missing out on a chance to land Matsui as their new “feature player.” On the other hand, Yomiuri saved some yen by not having to pay the Seibu Lions compensation money and Matsui’s big contract okane. They used some of that to attract and sign Pacific League home run king Tuffy Rhodes, and we shall see how it all pans out.

It will be interesting to see what NHK does as far as televising MLB games in Japan next season.

With both Matsuis, Kazuo and Hideki, and Ichiro (Suzuki) playing every day for the Mets, Yankees and Seattle Mariners respectively, how can the network cover everything, especially on days when Hideo Nomo or Kaz Ishii is the starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers?

NHK may have to use all five of its channels, the terrestrial General and Educational signals, plus BS-1, BS-2 and BS-High Vision, to cover the action. In 2003, NHK telecast more than 330 major league games in one form or another. What will they do in 2004, carry 500?

It was only Dec. 18, but the Nikkan Sports paper front page referred to June 18, the day the Yankees will play the Dodgers in the opener of a three-game interleague series in Los Angeles.

The highlight for Japanese fans will be the anticipated face-off, Hideki Matsui batting against the pitching of Nomo, Ishii or Matsui’s former Yomiuri teammate, Masao Kida.

The Nikkan ran the entire 2004 Yankees schedule calendar on that Dec. 18 Page 1, and it lists the New Yorkers as the visiting team for the Tokyo Dome openers vs. Tampa Bay on March 30-31.

Matsui-Matsui games will take place when the Yankees play the Mets at Yankee Stadium June 25-27 and at Shea Stadium July 2-4. Think summer!

* * * Finally this week and to end the year, a couple of messages from the e-mail bag in response to my last column on the anticipated rise in interest in Japan’s Pacific League for 2004 and prospects for the three “B Class” teams, the Chiba Lotte Marines, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Orix BlueWave, to move up to the first division.

Dear Wayne: I’ve been a Marines fan since they moved to Chiba (1992). The Bobby (Valentine) year, the final three games at Green Stadium Kobe that year (1995, when the Marines swept the Orix BlueWave and delayed Orix’s pennant clinching).

The 18 (consecutive) losses (in 1998).

Hope to see you at Marine Stadium next year. I sit behind the drums and in front of the trumpets. Nevan King, Chiba

Dear Nevan: Can’t wait to see how the Marines’ boisterous cheering section and its musicians react to the team next season in the second Valentine year. What do you play, the tambourine? I’ll look for you behind the drums, but I’ll be sitting between the earplugs.

* * * Dear Mr. Graczyk: I enjoyed reading your last column of Dec. 10 regarding the 2004 Pa League, and quite agree with you that the Pa League pennant race will attract more baseball fans next year, particularly by the three lowly but transformed. I’m looking forward to watching their exhibition games in Marchat Yahoo Ball Park and Koshien Stadium. Wayne, wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2004. Kazuo Kakimi, Nara

Dear Mr. Kakimi: The same to you, Kazuo, and to all readers of the Baseball Bullet-In. See you again on Jan. 7.

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