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Friday, March 29, 2002

Stay or go? Only Matsui knows

Staff writer

It's the question on the mind of a great many people these days, especially fans of the Yomiuri Giants. Will superstar Hideki Matsui stay with the team after becoming a free agent at the end of this season, or immediately depart for the major leagues?

All signs point to the latter. The 27-year-old Matsui has been mum on the issue for months now, obviously because he doesn't want to put any more pressure on himself heading into what could be his final season with the club.

Hideki Matsui

A decision by the slugger to leave Japan's most popular team would rock Japanese baseball to its core. But when a talented young man has a dream, it is hard to stand in his way, no matter what the consequences are.

Fumihiro Fujisawa is the president of the Association of American Baseball Research, a noted television commentator on major league games and author of several books on Major League Baseball. In addition to that he is a lifelong fan of the Giants, which all makes him well qualified to speak on the subject of Matsui's future.

"Matsui is willing to go to the States," says Fujisawa. "I think he would like to follow the example set by Kazuhisa Ishii (former Yakult Swallows pitcher), who won the Japan Series last year then left to join the majors.

"If the Giants were to finish fourth or fifth this season for example, I think it would be much tougher for Matsui to leave," Fujisawa says.

Fujisawa mentions how the Ishikawa Prefecture native "really respected former Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima" and that his retirement following last season "has helped clear the way" for the star to make the big move.

That in addition to players like Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Akira Eto and Yoshinobu Takahashi all being capable of stepping in and becoming Yomiuri's next clean-up hitter, will make Matsui's decision easier, Fujisawa believes.

"As a fan of the MLB I would like to see a Japanese slugger like Matsui try his ability in the States," Fujisawa states. "In his heart, I think he wants to go."

Fujisawa cites Matsui's decision to turn down a multiyear contract offer from the team after last season as more evidence of his intentions and likens Matsui leaving the Giants to "Derek Jeter leaving the New York Yankees to play baseball in Japan."

"Matsui leaving the Giants will have a much greater impact on pro baseball in Japan that Ichiro's departure did," Fujisawa states. "Many more Japanese people watched Ichiro on television last year with the Seattle Mariners than ever saw him on TV here in Japan.

"Playing for the BlueWave, Ichiro just didn't receive that much TV exposure, unlike Matsui who has played every game of his career before a nationwide audience."

It is clear to Fujisawa that if Matsui were to join a premier major-league team like the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers and play well, the interest of fans in Japan would dwarf even the level seen last year with Ichiro's incredible performance.

Five years ago, I was told by a Japanese colleague who is close to a good friend of Matsui's that he had been secretly taking English lessons for a couple of years. When I asked why, the person told me bluntly, "Because when goes to play in the majors, he wants to be able to speak fluently with his new teammates."

So it is quite clear that this isn't some lark, but rather the culmination of a lifelong dream for Matsui and one which he has been planning for years.

Perhaps the only person capable of persuading Matsui -- a lifetime .300 hitter who won his first batting title last season -- to stay, is Yomiuri chairman Tsuneo Watanabe. The man who is more powerful than the baseball commissioner in Japan, will no doubt pull out all the stops on this one.

"Watanabe will try to keep Matsui any way he can," says Fujisawa. "Matsui said he wished the Tokyo Dome field was grass, so Watanabe had new artificial turf installed this season, which looks just like grass. That is the kind of level he is willing to go to."

Following last season, the Giants rewarded Matsui with a record salary of 600 million yen for 2002, the highest in Japanese baseball history.

Fujisawa notes that the reason Matsui wears No. 55 is that when he began playing pro baseball he wanted to break the single-season home run record (55) of former Yomiuri star Sadaharu Oh.

Like many others who follow the Japanese game closely, Fujisawa wonders about what the future will hold for Japanese baseball if Matsui leaves. He thinks Japan "might turn into a minor-league system for the majors, much like ice hockey in Russia has for the National Hockey League."

But he also recognizes that the game here could enjoy a rebirth by the impact Matsui's departure would have.

"It would cause many Japanese baseball people to be compelled to think seriously about the future of the game."

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