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Monday, March 29, 2004
Updated: March 30, 10:41 AM ET
Welcome back 'Goji-san'

By Masayoshi Niwa
Special to ESPN.com

TOKYO -- When former Yomiuri Giants star Hideki Matsui showed up at the Tokyo Dome for batting practice on Saturday afternoon, fans went crazy and screamed his name as loud as ever throughout the stadium.

Hideki Matsui
It was only an exhibition, but an MVP award and game check was given to -- who else? -- Hideki Matsui. He homered in his first at-bat.

It was just batting practice, but when Matsui hit a home run, they gave a storm of applause, followed by the public address: "Matsui hit a big home run, and it disappeared into the Pacific Ocean! Matsui hit a nice line drive. It could be a three-base hit! Matsui hit 10-for-12 so far ..."

I repeat, it was just practice.

But you have to understand how much Japanese fans have been waiting for this moment. They don't have to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to watch Matsui on TV, and for them, this is almost like the World Series champions parade.

Somehow, it is funny when you hear 30,000-40,000 kids call him "Matsui-san," instead of just saying "Matsui!" In Japan, when they say "San" after the last name, it is a very polite expression.

But usually, nobody cares when they call players' names from the stands. In addition, they were just kids. Is that the result of good-manner lessons in the Japanese education system? Maybe. In Matsui's case, the main reason is that he gave his young fans some lessons in manners before.

Once, some kids asked him for an autograph from the stands shouting, "Hey, Matsui, give me your autograph!"

Matsui replied with smile, "Matsui? Hey kids, you have to say 'Matsui-san.' Haven't you learned from your mom that when you talk to an older person, you have to add 'san' after the last name?"

They listened with respectful attention, and afterward they corrected themselves, "I am sorry, Matsui-san. If you don't mind, can I have your autograph?"

This episode shows not only Matsui's personality, but also the way he communicates with fans and the reason for his mass appeal.

On Sunday evening, Matsui played against his former team in front of a sold-out crowd of 55,000 fans. It didn't matter whether Matsui swung or not. As expected, millions of camera strobes flashed at each pitch, and a large crowd shouted in a quick rhythm:

"Home run Matsui, Home run Matsui, Home run Matsui."

He responded to the cheers of the crowd by hitting a home run deep into right-center field.

After the game, his diehard fans spoke.

"This is the Matsui who we knew," Naoki Nishizaki said. "He was different in the majors. Hitting home runs is his game. Whenever he came to the plate, we always expected that he would hit a home run."

It seems he wasn't satisfied with Matsui's 16 homers as a Yankee last season.

"Yeah, exactly, I would say 16 home runs is not enough," Nishizaki said. "He is not Ichiro. I want to see him hit at least 30 home runs."

When he was in Japan, Matsui was Barry Bonds, or Sammy Sosa.

Looking back at Matsui's high school days, he led his team, Seiryo High School to the prestigious National High School Championship Tournament at Koshien Stadium four times out of five possible tournaments during his three years of high school.

Japan's national high school baseball tournament, which is held two times every year in March and August is by far the most popular amateur sports event in Japan, comparable to the NCAA national finals.

In Japan, Matsui became a high school legend for not swinging even once during five at-bats in the final game of his final tournament. In his previous nine games, he had hit four home runs in his first nine tournament games. But in the final, he was intentionally walked in all five appearances and never was given a chance to swing the bat.

In 1992, Seiryo High School, which Matsui attended, was one of the baseball elite schools in Japan. Seiryo advanced to the third round and faced another powerhouse, the Meitoku Gijuku High school. But before the game, the manager of Meitoku told his starting pitcher, "Walk him each time, no matter what."

Following the order, the pitcher walked him five times, even in a two-out, nobody on situation in the seventh inning. At each at-bat, fans booed louder and louder. At the same time, Matsui's name got bigger and bigger, even though his team lost the game.

On Sunday, after Matsui hit a home run and a single off his former teammates, he walked twice. It was not intentional, but everybody knows his history, so fans booed their own pitchers.

"They booed the umpire too," Yankees manager Joe Torre said with a smile.

Just before Saturday's game. His old teammate, Daisuke Motoki, was surprised a little bit because Matsui forgot his own nickname.

When the Yankees' batting practice started just before Saturday's game, some Giants came out to watch. Motoki, saw Matsui and shouted his old nickname, "Goji!" which is short for Godzilla.

But there was no reaction for a moment from Matsui, so Motoki repeated louder, "Goji, Goji!"

Finally, Matsui noticed, but Motoki said, "I guess he forgot his own nickname. He is so Americanized."

Masui, meanwhile, is taking it all in stride.

"I don't have a hometown in U.S., so, this is my homecoming, I feel really great except for the tight schedule." When he was asked about the crowds, he insisted, "It was great. At the same time, however, I was able to control my emotions and keep my focus." But he admitted, "Home run? Yes, the fans boosted me up a lot."

This year, however, he is sure to feel more at home in New York and the major leagues.

His real hometown, Neagari-cho, is supporting Matsui in a unique way.

Get this. If Neagari-cho residents go to the U.S. and watch their hometown hero at any U.S. stadium, the Town Hall will reimburse a part of the traveling cost, up to $300 per person if they bring their passport and the game ticket stub to prove it.

"Probably, we are going to cheer him by the Neagari dialect. If so, he may feel he is at home wherever he goes," said the PR director of Neagari-cho.

How about this time in Tokyo? Fans will have paid up to $250 for a ticket. Will it be paid also?

The director laughed and said, "Sorry, it is for games in the U.S. only."

Masayoshi Niwa lives in Seattle and covers baseball for Sports Yeah! magazine, Major.jp, Nikkei Shinbun, which are all based in Tokyo.