Thursday October 18th, 2007

Kazuo Matsui has worn a World Series ring before.

It was Dec. 2003, in a midtown Manhattan hotel, and Matsui was being formally introduced to the United States. Two hundred reporters showed up for the occasion. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg emceed. One of the Mets' minority owners, Saul Katz, lent Matsui a 1986 World Series championship ring and encouraged him to show it off.

Matsui raised his bejeweled hand to the crowd and said through his interpreter: "I'm going to do my best to bring another one to the city and to the New York Mets."

A little less than four years later, Matsui is heading to the World Series with the Colorado Rockies. The Mets, meanwhile, are still trying to recover from their historic nose dive. For Mets fans, watching the 2007 playoffs on television has been excruciating enough. But watching Matsui play in the World Series will be a surreal kind of torture.

The history of New York baseball is littered with unrealistic expectations and colossal disappointments. But even by New York standards, Matsui was an enormous bust. In Japan, he was a seven-time All Star, a four-time Gold Glove winner and an international iron-man. In New York, he was an injury-prone defensive liability who swung so wildly that he would often do complete pirouettes in the batters box.

The Mets gave Matsui three years to acclimate to the major leagues. And wouldn't you know, in this his fourth year, he finally did. While the Mets could not win in September, Matsui and the Rockies could not lose. And while the Mets could not beat the Phillies to make the playoffs, Matsui and Rockies swept the Phillies out of the playoffs in the first round. Matsui batted .417 in the series and belted a grand slam.

It was the kind of performance the Mets anticipated when they gave Matsui a three-year, $20 million contract, then added a $25,000 housing allowance, a full-time translator, a free car and eight business-class tickets from New York to Tokyo. They even pushed their top prospect, Jose Reyes, to second base so Matsui could play shortstop.

I was a Mets beat writer when Matsui arrived at spring training in 2004. He dyed his hair orange. He wore vintage T-shirts and designer jeans. He scrawled Japanese characters on his bat for luck. He slid silver beads around his ankles because he said they harnessed energy. Around Port St. Lucie, Fla., he was sort of like an Asian Beckham.

Ten days into spring training, his personal saga began. Matsui cut his middle finger fielding a ground ball and had to sit out. This was a guy who had played 1,143 consecutive games. Now he was hurt before the first game of his first exhibition season.

But the real trouble arose when Matsui came back. In Japan, he had been accustomed to fielding on artificial turf, where the hops are fast and true. He would sit back on ground balls, play them to the side, and take his time side-arming to first.

The Mets had to teach Matsui fundamentals of the game -- how to charge grounders, how to get in front of balls, how to throw overhand to first base. It did not do much good. For most of his rookie year, Matsui led all shortstops in errors.

"I think he'll be a superstar someday," former Mets' outfielder Cliff Floyd said in '04. "But you can't expect that right now. You've got to be patient."

There were problems with Matsui's arm, his hands and his eyes. He could barely read the signs flashed by the catcher. The Mets tried to get him prescription goggles, but he resisted. After weeks of consideration, he finally agreed to wear contact lenses. He suffered another injury when one of the contact lenses scratched his cornea.

Matsui was neither a contact hitter nor a power hitter. The Mets tried to convince him to stop switch hitting and bat only from the left side. Unsuccessful, they dropped him from first in the batting order to eighth. When Donald Trump went on ESPN in 2004 and was asked who in the world of sports he would like to fire, he named Matsui. By September, Matsui was in Port St. Lucie again, rehabilitating from back spasms. When a hurricane swept through the area, Matsui told the Mets that he did not want to evacuate. He wound up living in the clubhouse for three days with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, eating food that was stored in the stadium's concession stands.

Somehow, 2005 started even worse. Matsui switched to second base, but he had trouble turning double plays because he kept getting upended by hard slides. Mets' fans chanted "Cai-ro, Cai-ro," for the team's backup second baseman, Miguel Cairo. Matsui looked confused. In Japan, players rarely attempt take-out slides and fans rarely boo.

Teammates and coaches wondered what Matsui was thinking, how he was coping. But he did not speak English and they did not speak Japanese. He was basically alone in the clubhouse. On his personal Web site, Matsui wrote a message translated to read: "I don't know what I should write. I apologize to my fans. Still, I am doing my best."

The Mets tried to get rid of Matsui, but he had a burdensome contract and a partial no-trade clause. By 2006, he was a $7 million-a-year pinch runner. Finally, on June 9, 2006, the Mets traded him to the Rockies for utilityman Eli Marrero, who is no longer in the big leagues. The Mets threw in $4.5 million to make the deal fair. "I can't really say what the reason was why I couldn't succeed," Matsui said through an interpreter on the day he was traded. "Obviously, I feel responsible." He added: "I don't want to say whether they saw the true Matsui or they didn't."

GMs often like to claim that underperforming players just need a change of scenery. Usually, the scenery changes nothing. But in this case, it might have saved a career. With the Mets, Matsui batted .272 in 04, .255 in 05 and .200 in '06. With the Rockies, he batted .345 in '06 and .288 in '07. He is not a star, but he is a contributor.

No one ever disputed his potential. Matsui is thriving in Colorado, but then again, he might have thrived anywhere, so long as it was not New York. He was run out of town in the same manner as Armando Benitez, Roger Cedeno and Braden Looper.

But even in Matsui's most hopeless times, he had one intriguing quality about him, something scouts called "a sense of occasion." He hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues. For three straight years, he hit a home run in his first at-bat of the season. He was best when the stadium was full and the stakes were high.

The World Series should suit him. The Mets may not want to watch.

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