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Sunday, April 6, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Matsui's got a nice wife, but can she cook a mean hamburger?


As indicated by the content of newspapers like Nikkan Sports and Sports Nippon ("Suponichi"), reporters who cover athletes and reporters who cover show-business personalities are almost interchangeable. Though tabloid sportswriters are expected to have specialized knowledge of the sports they cover and tabloid showbiz reporters aren't expected to know anything beyond the details of a subject's most recent divorce, in the end they both trade in celebrity fascination.

So it was odd that the journalists who covered the press conference in Florida where slugger Hideki Matsui announced his marriage went about their work so awkwardly. Even by the usual standard of inarticulateness that applies to professional athletes, Matsui is opaque, but he's more willing than most to talk to reporters, which he obviously believes is part of his job. In Florida, he was clearly embarrassed at the prospect of discussing a matter this private, and the discomfort infected the press corps, who tossed their predictable questions at the New York Yankee outfielder as if afraid they might reinjure that famously delicate left wrist. If they had been real showbiz reporters they would have shown no mercy, but as a celebrity Matsui is often treated as if he were a member of the royal family.

Thanks to a scoop by Sankei Sports, everyone knew that Matsui had already wed the unidentified woman from Toyama Prefecture in New York City. But they didn't know much else and Matsui didn't give them a lot to work with, the main reason being that his bride is an ippanjin, or "regular person." She didn't enter into the union as a celebrity, and is thus off-limits. She remains a mystery, and the two crude drawings of the young woman that Matsui displayed at the press conference — one sketched by him, the other by his architect brother — may have prompted observers to wonder if all this marriage business wasn't some kind of premature April Fool's joke. TBS's "Sunday Japon" elaborated on the idea by commissioning its own drawing of the woman that looked like something from Picasso's cubist period.

Though her ippanjin status matches Matsui's unassuming personality, it's an anomaly among wives of athletes, or, at least, athletes of Matsui's stature. Generally, celebrity athletes marry celebrities, and baseball players have a tendency to hook up with television announcers. It's understandable since female announcers are often called upon to interview sports stars as part of their jobs and thus get to meet more professional baseball players than your average single woman. Announcers have a certain feminine allure, just as flight attendants did back in the '60s and '70s. They are sex symbols in their own right, and TV stations take advantage of it.

While this allure is as enticing to big name athletes as it is to male TV viewers, there is also a career advantage in marrying TV announcers. You get not only a conjugal partner, but also a ready-made PR machine. Most announcers quit their jobs after marrying but use their skills and connections to promote their husbands as public figures in ways that the husbands may not be comfortable doing themselves. Some baseball wives have their own blogs, which offer fans a glimpse at their favorite players' private lives. The spouses of Boston Red Sox star Daisuke Matsuzaka (ex-announcer) and Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish (ex-idol) both described on their Web sites their partners' participation in the recent births of their respective babies.

Another aspect that distinguishes Matsui's new wife from the usual sports spouses is her age. She is 25, eight years younger than her husband. Many athletes marry older women. They have jobs that are tough on the mind and body, and thus need partners who can relieve as much of the pressure of daily life as possible. In other words, they need mothers. This is a vestige of the sumo world, where a champion's wife must deal with sponsors and later become the okami (mistress) of her husband's stable after he retires from the ring. Former yokozuna (grand champion) Takanohana married an older TV announcer and is now a respected sumo elder, while his brother, also a yokozuna, married a younger flight attendant and is now a divorced, marginal TV talent.

That's why one of the common questions at celebrity marriage press conferences is about the bride's abilities in the kitchen. Matsui says his new wife cooks a mean hamburger, which isn't going to impress the folks back in Japan but sounds about right given the slugger's lingering adolescent image. Still, it's better than some other answers. Kazuhisa Ishii, former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, once told reporters that his ex-announcer wife's best dish was "raw vegetables."

If the culinary standards seem to be slipping, it should also be noted that the incursion of Japanese baseball stars into the American major leagues has made TV announcer partners even more valuable in that their former job descriptions usually required fluency in English. Japanese major leaguers are notoriously monolingual and they count on their wives to help them navigate those aspects of American life that require communication of a higher level than "I think you're in my parking space."

Matsui's new wife seems to have none of these special helpmate attributes, which probably means that the media's claim it was love at first sight isn't just sentimental boilerplate. Because Matsui has always been cooperative with reporters, his reticence at the press conference makes him appear that much more gallant: He'll protect his wife against the tabloid horde. As the magazine Aera commented, the only way we're going to get a glimpse of the woman is if the Yankees win the World Series and she joins the other players' wives in the requisite victory parade. But don't expect a kiss.



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