Ann Killion
Friday March 11th, 2011

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- When Hideki Matsui was a young teenager in Japan and already a budding baseball prodigy, he was an ardent fan of the Oakland A's.

Though Matsui gets his questions translated by his longtime personal translator, Roger Kahlon, his infatuation with the A's needed no interpretation.

"Because of the Bash Brothers?" Matsui was asked recently.

He nodded, with a grin.

Back in the Bash Brothers days of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Co., the A's were a big-market team, packing the Oakland Coliseum and making three consecutive World Series from 1988-90.

Not anymore. Over two decades of neglect, a big-market has become small and forgotten, a fan base has disappeared and the A's have fallen off the radar.

Can one Japanese superstar turn back the clock?

The A's are hoping that maybe their new equation -- great young pitching plus solid position players plus Matsui -- can recreate some of the excitement of the past.

"There's a little extra energy with Hideki - a different feeling around the clubhouse," manager Bob Geren said. "It's a big-market feel."

Matsui is already packing at least part of the house -- the press box. The dozens of Japanese media members who trail his every move have created more energy around this A's team than many of the team's young players have ever seen. And that's a good thing, according to the club.

"It's good for the young players to see how he handles it, which is as well as you'd want," general manager Billy Beane said. "In the early part of the decade we put ourselves on the map as a brash, fun-loving group. But this group is completely different in terms of makeup and personality. So it's good for them to see Hideki. He's a star. Like with David Beckham, he knows how to be a star."

While Matsui will certainly bring Oakland a star presence, what he can do for the A's on the field remains to be seen. He turns 37 in June. He hit .274 last season with Anaheim, hitting 21 home runs and driving in 84 runs. He would have easily led the offense-challenged 2010 A's in the latter two categories. Geren has no plans to use Matsui as anything other than a designated hitter.

"This team promises a lot of potential and a possible playoff run," Matsui said. "And they were very passionate in terms of wanting me to be part of the team as a designated hitter."

"I hope that I can be a good influence for the players."

Matsui's influence is being felt in other ways, too. He grew up in southwest Japan, away from the impact of Friday's devastating earthquake. But he lives in Tokyo in the offseason and was glued to news from his homeland. In the wake of the earthquake, the A's announced the team would raise funds for the victims and plans to turn the game on April 3 -- at the Oakland Coliseum against Ichiro Suzuki's Seattle Mariners -- into a benefit game.

"I am deeply concerned and affected by what is happening in Japan," Matsui said Friday in a team release. "I pray for the safety of all the people that have been affected and continue to be affected by this disaster."

Matsui signed, relatively quietly, with the A's in December, after their pursuit Adrian Beltre and Lance Berkman fizzled. When he arrived at spring training, Dallas Braden welcomed him on the first day of spring training with an inflatable Godzilla doll, wearing an A's jersey and cap. But there was no mass of reporters and cameras or much fanfare.

It was far different from when he signed with the Yankees eight years ago, and landed at spring training in 2003.

"That was the first time for everything and I felt the pressure," Matsui said. "The overall attention to this team is certainly a major difference."

But he's brought his own attention, speaking to Japanese reporters in the parking lot before and after every game.

"It's always been like that for me, so I'm pretty used to it," he said. "Personally, it doesn't bother me. I just don't want them to be an inconvenience to the rest of my teammates."

So far, it's more novelty than inconvenience. The A's front office can only hope that the fans follow behind the media. Season tickets sales are up approximately 50 percent from last year (though the A's decline to give specific numbers so 50 percent of miniscule is still not much). The A's are hoping for a Matsui Effect in the stands.

There will be one visible impact. Claude Bilodeau, an Angels fan from Downey, has transferred his concept of "Matsuiland" to Oakland, bringing a giant sign to Oakland's right field bleachers. A take off on Orange County's Disneyland, with an Angels' haloed "a" as the second letter, Bilodeau and his brothers have converted the sign to green and gold and replaced the second letter with an Oakland style "A." They are handing it off to an Oakland fan who sits in right field.

"I was always intrigued by him," Bilodeau said. "I hope the A's fans embrace him."

If Matsui can recreate even a hint of his favorite team from childhood, he will have worked wonders.

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