Media Monster The Yankee with the most reporters and paparazzi on his tail isn't Derek Jeter. It's 29-year-old rookie Hideki Matsui, who's bigger in Japan than Godzilla

July 13, 2003

There are some 80 of them here, an odd lot of reporters, camera
people and technical personnel, all from Japan and all gathered
outside the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park. They are outfitted
in the finest threads that globalized MallAmerica has to offer.
Many of them are desperate for a smoke, and all of them are here
to chronicle the life and times of a single man, albeit one whose
face appears on teacups all over Japan. Above them, long boom
microphones give the pack the look of one giant bedenimed insect.
¶ They are beginning to wander, some of them. The famous Green
Monster is attracting some attention, so Isao Hirooka, a former
Tokyo sportswriter turned media wrangler for the New York
Yankees, digs his heel into the reddish clay and draws a line in
the dirt. "Here," he says. "We all stay behind this line." ¶ And
they do. ¶ All of them.

When the Yankees come out and Hideki Matsui joins his teammates
in their stretching exercises on the grass, entangling himself in
one of those long rubber bands that are now popular with athletic
trainers (but that look for all the world like toys out of the
specialty closets at the Mustang Ranch), the media blob billows
outward to record every loosening hammy. But none of them ever
crosses Hirooka's line--which is something that cannot be said of
any other passel of reporters covering any other person at any
other place in the country.

"I am very busy handling Japanese media," says Hirooka, who
covered Matsui as he became a national icon with the Yomiuri
Giants. "I have to make a good relationship between the [New
York] beat writers and the Japanese media. Hideki was worried
about that--if he comes to the New York Yankees, then lots of
Japanese media will come to the United States, and Hideki doesn't
want [that] to bother his teammates or the Yankee people. He
doesn't want that to bother the beat people."

It already has been an eventful day. Pedro Martinez has been
scratched as the Boston starter with an injured back muscle.
This, of course, affects not only the Red Sox but also the
Yankees, the rest of the East Division and the entire American
League. Here, though, inside the Matsuicentric bubble, it means
only that tonight Matsui will not be facing the great Martinez
for the first time as a major leaguer. In Japan, 13 hours ahead
of Boston, several million readers are just now waking up and
reading several hundred stories about a confrontation that will
not take place.

None of the reporters is as disappointed as Yasushi Washida, a
magazine writer who has flown in this morning specifically to
write a long story about the Matsui-Martinez moment. Instead he
will write about Matsui and Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra,
who first played against each other in a high school all-star
game in California. "I have come right here from the hotel,"
Washida says. "I will go home tomorrow." Nobody--not Mickey
Mantle on his worst, whiskeyed morning--ever has come to the
ballpark groggier than Washida.

Times change. Babe Ruth didn't have his sybaritic gymnastics
dissected on the radio by Ralph from Queens. Whitey Ford could
doctor a baseball into a cube and not be concerned about turning
up on Nightline in the company of Jayson Blair, Martha Stewart
and the boys from Enron. And Granny Rice never had to confront on
his daily rounds nearly a hundred sports journalists from a
sports-happy country dedicated solely to the coverage of a single
player, especially one who was hitting .268 and carrying
approximately the same power numbers as Todd Zeile. However, in
the month of June, Matsui gave everyone an awful lot to
write--and telecast--back home about. He hit .394 with 29 RBIs
and a .673 slugging percentage as the Yankees began to take
command of the East Division. He put a 4-for-5 game on the
Cincinnati Reds on June 5 and, later in the month, tore up the
New York Mets, batting .522 in six games of the bridge-and-tunnel
set, with three home runs, including a grand slam. For this, in
his 11th year of professional baseball, Matsui was named the
American League's Rookie of the Month.

"There probably are too many of us," says Yusuke Kamata, a TV
producer with Fujisankei Communications who's covered the major
leagues for four years. "But he has never complained. When he is
0 for 5, when he makes two errors, when he hits a home run, he
talks to us. That makes everyone's job so much easier. The most
surprising thing is that he talks to us every day."

Their internal journalistic clocks are on Japanese time. Their
deadlines make game stories irrelevant almost before they're
written, and anyway the only story is Matsui. In Japan everything
that happens to the Yankees--nay, everything that happens in the
major leagues--is reported in the context of how it affects
Matsui. When Yankees manager Joe Torre, improvising against a
spate of injuries, moved Matsui up to the second spot in the
batting order for a game in late May, the story was not that
Bernie Williams had a bad knee or Derek Jeter a balky hamstring
but that Matsui had never batted second in his ... entire ...
career.

After every game they set themselves up in a place apart from
their American colleagues--in an unused locker room in Yankee
Stadium, outside the clubhouse in a damp brick corridor here in
Fenway--and Matsui speaks to them for 10 minutes. (He talks with
the U.S. media through an interpreter, a young Arizona grad named
Roger Kahlon, who was born and raised in Tokyo.) Then he goes
back into the clubhouse, and his attendant press corps seems to
disappear right into the walls.

"They don't come into the clubhouse," says Yankees broadcaster
Michael Kay. "They might come in one at a time, but they don't
flood the place. They've made so little difference, except on the
field before a game, when you see how many they are."

"Most of us find different things to write about," says Ric
Kitaka of the Kyodo news service. "Some of us write about his
fielding. Some of us write about his baserunning."

For his part Matsui manages to pull off the difficult emotional
parlay of being both amiable and infrangible. "I am used to this
fuss," he says. "I have lived with it since I was in high school
and 55,000 people came to see the championship game."

So maybe this is the way to solve the chronic problems that
baseball players have with the media and vice versa: simply
assign each player his own traveling press corps, a group of
journalists whose only job it is to record his daily doings and
to view all of baseball through the prism of one man's journey
through the season. The player gets familiar with his writers,
and the writers get invested in his career. If the player's
average dips below .250, the reporters find out how far that New
York expense account will travel in Triple A.

It's not like there aren't precedents in American journalism.
It's the way we cover presidential campaigns: a couple of hundred
reporters, all coughing and sneezing and cursing and stumbling as
they walk backward through some godforsaken New Hampshire mill
town in the middle of the winter, all of them chronicling the
larger world through the fortunes of one man.

Of course Alfonso Soriano would have more people following him
around than would Juan Rivera. And why not? How many reporters do
you think are assigned right now to, say, Dennis Kucinich? Then
again most of those other players are American. That could be a
problem.

Back in the Edo period, a slice of Japanese history that lasted
from 1603 until the Americans barged in and the Meiji were
restored in 1867, the nation turned radically inward. The people
devoured what were called kawara-ban, one-page news sheets
peddled on the street by hawkers known as yomi-uri. The
kawara-ban had a distinctly tabloid flavor. They covered
earthquakes and fires and tidal waves. Later they came to report
on garish murders, lovers' suicides and the births of triplets,
and they so luxuriated in the lurid that the feudal authorities
of the time regularly shut them down. They also covered
celebrities, especially actors in the Kabuki.

In an essay published in a volume called The Electric Geisha,
author Takao Yoshii argues that the kawara-ban were the first
form of Japanese mass media. "Publications designed chiefly to
entertain...played a major role in creating the information
society," writes Yoshii. "The same can be said of the information
society today....Little of the information given to us these
days is urgent, and the amount of material directly related to
life-and-death issues is relatively small."

The descendants of the kawara-ban live on in Japan's modern mass
media--in which mass has a different meaning from the one it has
even in the media-saturated U.S. Yomiuri Shimbun is the world's
largest newspaper, with a daily circulation of more than 14
million. Japan has four other national newspapers, with
circulations ranging from more than 12 million to two million;
two evening tabloids with circulations exceeding 1.5 million and
a third with more than 400,000 readers; and seven daily national
sports newspapers with circulations above 100,000. There are five
major TV networks and one national public television network, as
well as a clutch of sports magazines with names like Number and
Sports Yeah! In February the magazine Sports Nippon came close to
channeling the spirit of the kawara-ban when, covering the
breaking news of Matsui's root canal, it ran a picture of his
gaping mouth on its front page.

By then Matsui was one of the biggest stars Japanese baseball had
ever seen. His celebrity began when he was in high school in
Kanazawa, a town in the Ishikawa Prefecture of central Japan, and
exploded LeBronically when he signed right out of school with the
Yomiuri Giants. In the 10 seasons he played with the Giants,
Matsui was an All-Star nine times and won three MVP awards. He
hit 332 home runs. Through it all, he maintained an ease and a
reserve that contrasted vividly with the media frenzy that
attended his career.

"It isn't too painful, really," he says with a nod and a smile,
"the media."

It can't be easy to keep a grip on your composure, however, when
a former prime minister volunteers to be the president of your
fan club. Matsui was not merely the most popular baseball player
in Japan but also the most popular person in the country. He
popped up on the teacups. He hit one home run that was so long
that the mayor of his hometown called it an act of God. His
preference in anime action series (Gundam) was analyzed, as was
his taste in pornography. (One international magazine reported
that Matsui has an extensive private library of adult videos.)
And this was all before he decided to come here and sign aboard
that ongoing festival of celebrity that once employed Babe Ruth
and Reggie Jackson, that is owned by the closest thing that
American plutocracy has to a carny act and that hired Billy
Martin five times. "We're always at DefCon 4," says Rick Cerrone,
the Yankees' director of publicity. "It doesn't take much to get
us to DefCon 5."

As soon as Matsui's three-year, $21 million deal was confirmed
last December, Japanese reporters and photographers began staking
out hotels and prowling Yankee Stadium. When the team finally
introduced its acquisition at a press conference in a Midtown
ballroom in January, more than 400 media types attended what was
reckoned to be one of the biggest press conferences in the
history of sports.

Most of the Japanese reporters moved to the U.S. during spring
training, first setting up shop in Tampa. Most of them left their
families back in Japan. Their various outlets are now paying
Manhattan prices to maintain them here. There was a brief uproar
at the beginning of the season when the Japanese media discovered
that Yankee Stadium is a no-smoking facility--they are truly a
bunch of chimneys--and several of them found themselves briefly
exiled down the block in the general direction of the Bronx
County Courthouse.

They have developed their own social circle. After home games
many of them adjourn to Japanese bars and social clubs in
Manhattan, especially Usagi, a surreptitious little club on the
East Side that caters to them the way Toots Shor's old place
catered to sportswriters back in the days when Elston Howard was
as close as a Yankee ever got to being exotic. And they find
themselves interviewed as much about Matsui by American reporters
as Matsui is interviewed about himself. Their collective identity
blurs with his.

Gaku Tashiro of the newspaper Sankei Sports is living in a
$3,000-per-month flat in Manhattan. "This is my one dream since I
was a kid, to cover the major leagues," he says. "Usually I was
watching the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series in the
1970s, when I was young." Tashiro writes a daily column called
"Yankee Museum." This is his second time in the U.S. with a
Japanese baseball star; he first came here two years ago to cover
the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle.

Ichiro was the prototype for this kind of coverage, and he came
to dislike it so thoroughly that his relationship with the
Japanese media permanently soured in 2001. When he first came to
Seattle and many of his games were televised live in Japan, his
runaway success made Ichiro more of a celebrity back home than
he'd ever been before. The demand for information about him
exploded to nearly comic proportions; one magazine famously
offered a seven-figure bounty for nude shots of Ichiro, who
eventually cut off several Japanese reporters, causing a general
uproar among the rest of them.

Unlike Matsui, whose disposition in his interviews is so level
that you could bowl on it, Ichiro became prickly and (worse)
inaccessible. A split developed between the Eastern mystic image
that Ichiro cultivates with the Western media and his fractious
relationship with reporters from his own country. In contrast
Matsui has courted the Japanese press shrewdly, taking the whole
lot of them out to dinner in spring training and establishing
ground rules to which he adheres every bit as firmly as any
reporter does. Now, politely, the Japanese reporters following
Matsui talk about Ichiro in the same way that their American
counterparts talk about Barry Bonds. Because Ichiro became a
superstar in America, they say, he acts like an American
superstar. "When I tell people about Matsui," says Yusuke Kamata,
"what I say is that he is very Japanese--calm, you know, very
patient. Whatever happens in the game, he never changes."

Perhaps because of the Japanese media's fondness for him and
because of his constant accessibility, Matsui has been spared not
only the most tabloidish excesses--nobody is yet soliciting
photos of Matsui in the shower--but also harsh criticism for his
slow start at the plate. After his grand slam in his first game
at Yankee Stadium, which was televised live in Tokyo at 2 a.m.,
there was more than a little banjo music to his game. He seemed
slow to adjust to big league heat, and through May he had hit
more ground balls (118) than any other major league player. This
was not what either Japan or George Steinbrenner, to name two
very large, loud audiences, expected of him.

In Boston, for example, Matsui made a fine play in the outfield,
bending low on the run to spear a fading liner, rolling forward,
popping up and making a strong throw in to hold a runner. On the
night that Bernie Williams's knee moved Matsui up in the batting
order, a U.S. reporter complimented him on the catch.

"He is not here to make catches," the frazzled Isao Hirooka said
as he rounded up the Japanese press and moved the congregation
down the hallway beneath the stadium. "He is here to hit home
runs, you know?"

Indeed before Matsui got hot at the beginning of June, his lack
of power became so notable that Fuji Evening News, a Japanese
tabloid, ran a photo of Matsui, Soriano and Steinbrenner with
Japanese words coming out of Steinbrenner's mouth saying,
"Matsui's lack of power is disappointing. This is not the man we
signed a contract for"--which seems rather a paraphrase, if not
an entirely implausible one.

It's unlikely that Japanese reporters will turn on Matsui the way
that some of them have on Ichiro, who did not come to the U.S. as
the same kind of national icon. In a very real sense they are
embedded reporters in Matsui's life. They have a stake in his
career, and their lives here depend so completely on this one
player that a self-contained world has developed, with its own
customs and rules. Look at all of baseball--and all of
America--through the ups and downs of one player, and all the
others fade into the background.

"Let's say Matsui gets sent down to Columbus," says Yoshi Tanaka
of TV Tokyo America. "If he goes, I go too. I don't mind. Last
summer I went and saw the Columbus Clippers and the Norfolk
Tides. And do you know the Toledo Mud Hens? I like that team. I
like that stadium, too." Tanaka is a round, friendly young man
with a wispy beard. In exchange for his daily coverage of all
things Matsui, he gets the rest of baseball--and through it the
rest of North America. His eyes are still wide.

"That first trip," he says. "We go from Toronto to Tampa, and I
don't know what to pack, so I just bring everything. America is a
big place, you know?" On his visit to Fenway he walks all the way
out to rightfield to sit in the red seat that commemorates a
particularly monstrous Ted Williams home run. "This is a good
stadium, too," he says. "I like the old ones."

Tanaka and his colleagues will not see Columbus. Even before
Matsui's June breakthrough, Steinbrenner was unlikely to set two
continents at a roiling boil by shipping out as expensive an
experiment as Matsui. More important, Matsui's unflaggingly even
temperament bought him enough time to ride out what now looks
like little more than an adjustment period in April and May. "It
will take some time," he says, his voice never rising and his
expression open and occasionally quizzical. "The pitching here is
very good, and it will take me a little while to get used to it."

And then he's gone, back into the clubhouse, while the Japanese
reporters stand there murmuring, and then they're gone too, and
all that's left is the sound of the clubhouse boom box filtering
through the door--Latin music, maybe, and then reggae. Some song
from a different place, anyway.

Later down on the East Side of Manhattan another door opens just
a slice. An American reporter has descended the stairs and
knocked at the sign of the golden rabbit on the discreet mahogany
door of Usagi. (To find the place, the American has had to ask
directions from a Korean grocer and a cabdriver from Ukraine.) A
very large Japanese gent in a tuxedo bends himself through the
door. He is asked if any Japanese journalists are there tonight,
the ones who have come to America to live the Matsui life.

"No Matsui tonight," he says, closing the door and leaving the
American out on 49th Street in the rain, with a look on his face
like he just missed the last train to somewhere special. He's
good, though, this doorman. He knows kawara-ban when he sees it.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (MASKS) IN HIS IMAGE At a function in New York City in April, Matsui fans put on their best faces to welcome him. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY AARON GOODMAN; PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON COLOR PHOTO: LOU ROCCO/NYY YANKEE CLICKERS The camera jockeys tracking Matsui ensure that New York is, more than ever, the media capital of the world. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON BOLD STROKE Matsui's swing, honed since his youth, produced a .394 average and .673 slugging percentage in June. COLOR PHOTO: WWW.HIDEKI.CO.JP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER FIELD HAND Matsui's glovework has always been solid, but it's his bat the Yankees need most. COLOR PHOTO: WWW.HIDEKI.CO.JP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: YOMIURI PRESS COVER BOY Matsui is so popular back home that a former prime minister of Japan volunteered to be president of his fan club. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER GOOD DEAL Matsui's friendly cooperation gives the journalists the stories they need and keeps them from harassing him.

"There probably are too many of us," says Kamata, "but he has
never complained. The surprising thing is that HE TALKS TO US
EVERY DAY."

In Japan everything that happens to the Yankees--nay, everything
in the major leagues--is reported in the context of HOW IT
AFFECTS MATSUI.

Matsui's celebrity began when he was in high school in Kanazawa
and EXPLODED LEBRONICALLY when he signed with the Yomiuri
Giants.

Matsui has been spared the most tabloidish excesses--nobody is
yet soliciting PHOTOS OF HIM IN THE SHOWER, as happened with
Ichiro.

"It isn't too painful, really, the media," says a smiling Matsui,
whose disposition in interviews is SO LEVEL THAT YOU COULD BOWL
ON IT.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)