Friday, February 19, 2010
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Hideki Matsui Experience lapped up against Tempe Diablo Stadium in gentle waves Friday.
First were the two dozen members of the Japanese media, who clustered outside the Angels' spring training clubhouse starting about 9 a.m., notepads, recorders, still cameras and video cameras at the ready.
Next came a midmorning visit from a small man in a tan floppy hat, who was ushered around the training facilities by Angels vice president Tim Mead. The man, Masao Matsui, is Hideki Matsui's father and the president of his business ventures.
Mead introduced Masao Matsui to manager Mike Scioscia near the bullpen mounds. Scioscia politely removed his cap and sunglasses to shake hands. They chatted about Scioscia's fondness for the city of Osaka and about the food in Japan.
"We don't talk about the Yankees here," Scioscia joked. "No more Yankee Stadium."
About 30 minutes later, a motorcade of three cars pulled into the players' lot. In back was a black luxury SUV with tinted windows driven by Hideki Matsui, the Angels' new $6 million designated hitter. Shutters snapped, and Matsui rolled down the window to wave and smile at the gathered media members.
Matsui's entrance might have felt like a circus had it not been so orderly. Matsui has been dealing with this kind of star treatment for more than 10 years, back to his days with the Yomiuri Giants in the Japanese Central League. He has his own translator and his own public-relations man to help deal with the crush.
"For me, the number of media doesn't really bother me, whether it's large or small," Matsui said through an interpreter.
Keiichiro Sugiyama has been living in the United States covering Matsui for the past five years for Hokkoku Shimbun, the newspaper in Matsui's hometown of Ishikawa. Sugiyama said Matsui's celebrity in Japan is the equal of Tiger Woods' in the United States. Unlike Woods, he has never faced a public scandal.
"He's very sincere and well-liked," Sugiyama said. "He got married two years ago, and there have been no scandals. He's very smart and very kind. He never gets angry, and he talks to us every day."
Roughly 15 credentialed members of the Japanese media will travel with Matsui this season. He grants his time after each game, regardless of his performance. He typically takes them to dinner once per spring. His quotes might not be lively every day, but they can rely on him for copy.
"He's a calm person," said Hideaki Yonezawa of the Fuji Evening News. "If he expresses his feelings honestly and frankly, that's great. Usually, he's not so exciting, but we trust him and respect him."
Yonezawa said Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is slightly more respected by the public in Japan, but only because he is one year older than Matsui.
It's going to be a while before Hideki Matsui forgets about the pinstripes.
Yonezawa said travel agencies have already begun taking out ads in Japanese newspapers advertising package trips to visit Disneyland by day and see Matsui play for the Angels at night. Mead said the Angels also expect extra revenue this season through sponsorship deals with Japanese companies. Some of those business relationships have already begun.
"There's a following we sense, but we don't yet completely understand," Mead said.
The extra media attention so far has been a mild curiosity to Angels players, though they have yet to be blocked from reaching their lockers by a traveling media contingent that has swelled from three to about 18.
"For him, it might be a pain, but for us it's fine. We might get a couple of extra questions a night," reliever Scot Shields said. "I'm just excited because I know the type of player he is from pitching against him. You definitely don't want to face him."
Matsui is a good fit for the Angels' lineup because he injects much-needed plate discipline with power to all fields and an unusual ability as a left-handed hitter to hit left-handed pitching.
The Angels also think he is a good fit because of his clean reputation in the game. The Angels have grown wary of players with unpredictable personalities, particularly after Scioscia's run-in with Jose Guillen in 2004. Scioscia said he didn't bother to make any calls about Matsui.
"I don't think there's anything we had to check on this guy's character," Scioscia said. "From all the indications we have, everything we've heard is positive. When you hear Derek Jeter say it, I think it speaks volumes about what he brings."
Matsui arrived in camp two days earlier than he had to. Waiting for him was a set of size 8 Angels caps. It's the largest hat size the Angels have accommodated since Darin Erstad, also a size 8. Matsui said he came early to acclimate after the long flight from Japan. The workouts figure to be relatively easy for Matsui. Japanese teams are notorious for long, grueling spring workouts. Some teams begin training while snow is still on the ground.
After training seven straight springs with the New York Yankees in Florida, Matsui said it didn't feel strange to walk into the Angels' complex.
"The moment I walked in here, I was already in that mode anyway," he said. "For the Japanese fans, maybe it will be a little strange. They may not be used to seeing the red. I think one of the topics the media is going to cover and the fans are going to talk about is, 'Does he look good in red?'"
And does he?
"I think it will start to look good," Matsui said.
Mark Saxon cover the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com