Baseball / MLB

Tellem's take: Matsui a special person

by Arn Tellem

Special To The Japan Times

Arn Tellem is considered one of the most prominent agents in the sports world. He represented former Yomiuri Giants star Hideki Matsui during his entire 10-year career in the major leagues. Here he shares his thoughts on the Ishikawa native in an exclusive piece for The Japan Times.

In the fall of 2002 I got a phone call from a San Francisco lawyer who asked if I was interested in becoming the player agent for Hideki Matsui, the great Japanese baseball player.

I knew Matsui was about to become a free agent, and I had heard that the Yomiuri Giants slugger wanted to jump to the United States. Surely, I told the lawyer, a player of Matsui’s caliber already had stateside representation.

“No, he doesn’t,” said the lawyer. He offered to hook me up with a Japanese attorney advising Matsui.

Sports agents routinely get leads about unattached athletes; most turn out to be wild goose chases. But this one intrigued me, so I emailed the Japanese attorney.

He replied the next day. Over the next few weeks we corresponded about the ancient verities that were important to Matsui: honor, respect, humility. I promised that, if hired, I would uphold Matsui’s standards and treat him like a member of my family.

Toward the end of that November I learned through the Japanese media that Matsui had chosen me to be his agent.

During my 32 years in the business, that was the first — and so far only — time I’ve been hired by an athlete whom I had yet to meet.

Soon after Thanksgiving I flew to Japan for our first powwow. The moment I emerged from customs at Kansai International Airport, I was surrounded by reporters asking for my impressions of Osaka.

Given that I just landed and had never visited the city before, I said I was impressed with baggage claim.

On our first day together, Matsui and I shared a lovely meal — like Jero, we both dream of sushi — and discussed his goals and expectations.

While he had many questions about life in the major leagues, one thing was certain: He wanted to be a Yankee. As it turned out, the Yankees wanted him, too.

For seven years, Matsui bled pinstripes. In his very first home opener, he hit a grand slam.

Having played 1,250 consecutive games to finish his Japanese career, he didn’t miss a game in his first three seasons with the Yankees.

In 2006, during his 519th game with the club, he fractured his left wrist attempting a sliding catch against the Red Sox. Afterward, he wrote a statement apologizing to his teammates and then-manager Joe Torre for the injury.

Twice an All-Star, Matsui had his greatest moment as a Yankee during the 2009 World Series. Despite not starting a single game at Citizens Bank Park, a National League stadium at which the designated hitter is not allowed, Godzilla leveled the Phillies with three homers and a record-tying eight RBIs.

No hitter had ever done more damage in the Fall Classic in such a limited role. His .615 batting average was the third-highest ever posted for a player with at least 10 at-bats in the Series; his 1.385 slugging percentage, the second-highest to Lou Gehrig. He was voted the Series MVP.

Matsui retired from baseball last December. Throughout 20 professional seasons — 10 in the majors — he was a model of consistency. All told, he amassed Hall of Fame numbers: 2,643 hits, 507 home runs, a .293 batting average.

His career was practically a hymn to the work ethic. In combining the superb professionalism of Paul O’Neill with the late-inning heroics of Yankees great Tommy (Old Reliable) Henrich, he stayed true to the values we discussed in that first meeting in Osaka. He put his team before personal concerns, embracing his responsibilities to his teammates and fans. He fielded crazy outfield hops and tough questions from the press with equal aplomb.

At a time when athletes mock our reverence daily, Matsui’s exemplary behavior never wavered. As a proud, loyal citizen of Japan, he epitomized the finest in an All-American sport.

He practiced quiet philanthropy, giving large sums of money to charities without publicity or fanfare. When the tsunami slammed into Indonesia in 2005, Matsui donated $500,000 to UNICEF.

He was just as generous when another tsunami struck his homeland in 2011.

Matsui was a rare superstar who recognized the unique role his talent has given him and the good he could do for others.

Why is this athlete different from the more than 500 other athletes I have represented?

Well, for one thing, before I negotiated his first three-year contract with the Yankees, he asked me to take a cut in my standard fee. He said that if all went as hoped, he would consider making an adjustment in his next deal.

A few years later, with free-agency once again looming, he asked me to meet him in New York to discuss our business arrangement. To my astonishment, Matsui not only thanked me for my efforts on his behalf, but raised my commission beyond what I had initially asked.

Never in my career had this happened. I doubt it will happen again.

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