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Tuesday, March 30, 2004
A-Rod takes backseat to Matsui

By Mai Yoshikawa
Special to

TOKYO -- Alex Rodriguez said from the start this is Hideki Matsui's time to be in the limelight.

A-Rod's departure from the Texas Rangers in February was said to be the "trade of the century," but he had to play second fiddle to Matsui in the Yankees' first trip to Japan in 49 years.

Alex Rodriguez
There's no shortage of A-Rod admirers in Japan.

"I'm excited. It's a new chapter in my career and today is the start of a long journey," said A-Rod before the season opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tokyo Dome.

"Being in Japan is different, but I don't think it takes away from the event. The pressure is obviously there. In New York you're always going to have pressure, but that's a good thing because you're expected to win. We have such a good team that the pressure is diversified among the players."

On Tuesday, Matsui was without question the one who had to withstand the most pressure as the 55,000 fans roared every time he came to bat and cheered on the Japanese outfielder with the familiar "home run, home run Ma-tsu-i" chant from his Yomiuri Giants days.

It almost seemed as if the result of the game didn't matter. There was more applause and screaming when Matsui doubled in his first at-bat for his only hit than when Tino Martinez connected for his 300th career homer in the seventh.

Even Japanese Prime Minister Junichi Koizumi, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, decided to stick around and watch the whole game.

In a way, for A-Rod, it was fortunate that not all eyes were on him on this historic day.

"Perhaps it helps that I'm starting here instead of in New York. Opening Day is always a special day. This is my ninth Opening Day and perhaps the most special one. It's a new era in my life and one that I'm looking forward to, and it's going to be a good challenge," said A-Rod, who struck out looking in his first at-bat with the Yankees.

Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella knew what to expect and was not too concerned that all the attention was turned to A-Rod and Matsui since he predicted what the atmosphere in Japan would be like before flying 21 hours from Tampa to San Francisco to Tokyo last Friday.

"Alex is debuting with the New York Yankees and the Yankees are one of the most elite teams in baseball over there so it's understandable," Piniella said.

"And Matsui is obviously the thing that this country should focus on. It's the right thing to do. He's a star here and he's proven to be a star back in the U.S. It's a little different not being in Tampa Bay or New York opening up, but my nerves are going. I'm ready to go and I think our players are too," he added.

While A-Rod went 1-for-6 with an infield single in the two exhibition games between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers, Matsui made a bigger impact with a home run off his former teammates in his first at-bat.

" We've been doing a lot here in the last few days, so it felt like a sideshow. It's just good to get that first one out of the way because there was definitely some anxiety. "
Alex Rodriguez

Matsui made it sound easy by saying he was able to keep his cool even though he was returning to Tokyo Dome for the first time in nearly 15 months and the first time ever in Yankees pinstripes, but his teammates knew otherwise.

"Matsui's home run the other day was amazing. It's pretty difficult to hit a home run even at batting practice and he did it in his first at-bat and against his old team. It's something I'm sure he'll remember for a long time," said Derek Jeter.

"One of the things I wanted to see in Japan was how people were going to treat Matsui when he came back, so it was pretty interesting. He's like Michael Jordan over here. A-Rod's debut has almost been overshadowed by Matsui being here but I'm not surprised," Jeter said.

"Him being here in front of his home fans and for him to hit a home run, that was a classic magical moment to start off the 2004 season. I think the reception Matsui is getting here is great, I really do," said A-Rod.

Even though the Devil Rays came from behind for an 8-3 win in the first of the two-game opening series, A-Rod is not going to lose sleep over the defeat.

"We've been doing a lot here in the last few days, so it felt like a sideshow," he said. "It's just good to get that first one out of the way because there was definitely some anxiety. Every day I feel more like a third baseman and I'm going to take it one day at a time. One down and 161 to go."

Mai Yoshikawa lives in Japan and covers sports for the International Department of Kyodo News based in Tokyo. She also served as the Japanese PA announcer for the Seattle Mariners in 2003.