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Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Did Godzilla roar? Or simply growl?


Let's see . . . our world is writhing through some of its worst turmoil ever, the Japanese economy continues to stumble about like a man on uneven stilts, crime is up, jobs are down and the ozone layer has begun to resemble Swiss cheese without the cheese.

So what critical topic should I write about this week? Well, how about . . . baseball?

And why not? After all, after having been doughnut-dunked in baseball drivel by the Japanese media for the past eight months, the relative calm since the season's end feels unnerving. This seems especially true because the year 2003 reached a new zenith of delight for Japan's diamond-crazed fans. For this was the year Godzilla crossed the ocean.

If you have been locked inside your futon closet for the last many months and have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a quick primer. "Godzilla" is the nickname for Hideki Matsui, a baseball player with a lizardly complexion and a monsterly bat. At the end of last year, Matsui pulled stakes on the Tokyo Giants, the team most Japanese drool about, and signed with the top club in the U.S., the New York Yankees. Although Japanese fans were saddened to see Matsui go, everyone was eager for the local boy to do well in the big city.

More than eager. For the Japanese media gave Godzilla the kind of treatment usually reserved for King Kong. In short, it went bananas.

Every sportscast in the nation developed a "Major League Report" corner, which, while giving no actual info on the major leagues, focused on the exploits of Japanese players in America, chief of whom was Matsui. NHK -- as in "NHK," the most staid and respected news service in the land -- even offered a pitch-by-pitch summary of Matsui's every turn at the plate, and showed this on its prime-time news hour. Japanese sports papers, in turn, gave more coverage to Matsui than they did to some entire teams in their own professional leagues.

There were, of course, reasons for this hullabaloo. First, Matsui was not a boring Kintetsu Buffalo, like initial Pacific jumper Hideo Nomo, nor was he a yawnish Orix Blue Waver, like the redoubtable Ichiro. Matsui was instead a member of the mighty Giants, and not just any member, but their star. Plus he was not a slap-hitting speedster like Ichiro, but a rock 'em, sock 'em slugger, perhaps the finest Japan had produced in a generation.

Furthermore, this was more than just a game. This was honor. This was pride. Baseball has been the darling sport of this glory-starved nation for decades, and the major leagues were baseball's holy land. Throw in Japan's love/hate relationship with America, and everyone wanted to see Godzilla Matsui demonstrate Japanese clout before skeptical American eyes.

Before the season, mug-clinking salarymen at any drinking spot in Japan would tell you Matsui was guaranteed for 20 homers, at least. Thirty was more likely. And 40? Few would spit up their beer at that figure either. While some commentators voiced reservations, you could still see the hope in their eyes.

And now that a season of dust has settled, what do we have? Matsui topped a hundred RBIs and contributed much to the Yankees' almost world title. He also just missed the American League Rookie of the Year award, an honor he perhaps deserved.

But he hit only 16 home runs. Count 'em. Sixteen. His league ranking? Tied for 51st. His slugging percentage? Beneath that of leadoff hitter Ichiro.

Yet most Japanese media washed Matsui's shortcomings aside with an abandonment of objectivity as surreal as watching a giant dinosaur parade through Tokyo.

"Matsui hits for sixth game in a row!" would blaze a tabloid headline. "Matsui makes nice catch!" "Matsui drives in run!" At times the feeble announcements gave the evening headlines an aura of sarcasm.

A further TV gimmick was to flash shots of New York papers with Matsui's name in bold print, insinuating his star was glittering in the States. "There isn't a person in America who doesn't know his name!" boasted one network.

But here's a quote from a Midwestern baseball fan when asked about Hideki Matsui in early September of this year: "Who?"

There's the story, and the necessary reality check. Matsui played well, but many fans in the States still don't know much about him. If truth be told, his is only the fourth or fifth most valuable bat . . . on the Yankees alone.

And there's the second story: the New York Yankees, the best team that money can buy, with a payroll dwarfing that of the competition. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner buys superstars galore, which to many people equals buying championships.

Matsui joined that team, a team with a talent advantage and one with an almost certain lock on the playoffs, a team that he helped, but one that probably would have reached the postseason without him.

Had he joined an average squad and led them to the playoffs, then all the hullabaloo would have been deserved. But the showers of praise fell far too easily.

The distorted coverage points to Japanese insecurity, Japanese provinciality and Japanese thirst for attention. In some ways, it seems funny. In other ways -- especially for those who feel Japan can succeed without such giddy exaggeration -- it's aggravating.

Competitors like Matsui never blow their own horns; they leave such noisemaking to the media and fans. But the trumpeting media also have a duty to tell it like it is.

And Godzilla did not roar in 2003. He growled a bit, but he hasn't scared too many people just yet.

However, Matsui's most fearsome moments might still be coming. He has always shown resilience, and may well produce a beastly number of home runs in 2004.

If so, I'll write about it. That is, if I'm not too busy doodling on war, crime and the ozone layer.



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