Here Comes Little Matsui Diminutive shortstop Kazuo Matsui--Japan's A-Rod--is bringing his superb all-around game to the U.S., and teams are lining up to sign him

December 01, 2003

In the Samurai classic Yojimbo, rival factions bid for the
services of a mercenary who has wandered into town. To which
side will this mysterious swordsman give his allegiance?

Kazuo Matsui is baseball's yojimbo, a free agent from Japan
with more suitors than a Muromachi Era princess. No fewer than
nine major league teams--including the rival New York Yankees
and Boston Red Sox--are reportedly in the running for the
services of the 5'9" shortstop. The question brewing on hot
stoves on two continents is not just where this bat-and-glove
for hire will wind up, but also whether he's willing to change
positions or play in the shadow of another Japanese star.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, Matsui is considered the best
every-day player. The 28-year-old switch-hitter--who is not
related to Yankees leftfielder Hideki Matsui (whose 6'2",
210-pound frame and status as Japan's premier power hitter led to
Kazuo's being dubbed Little Matsui)--has won four Gold Gloves,
batted better than .300 for seven straight years, hit at least 20
homers in each of the last four seasons and stolen 30 or more
bases five times. In a millennium poll, fans voted him the
greatest Japanese shortstop ever. He was 24 at the time.

"Kazuo is the Alex Rodriguez of the Japanese game," says Robert
Whiting, author of You Gotta Have Wa, the definitive English book
on Japanese baseball. Until announcing his plans to jump to the
U.S. last week, Matsui was on his way to becoming his country's
Cal Ripken Jr. His consecutive-games streak of 1,143 is the
fifth-longest in Japanese baseball history. "Matsui plays hurt
and doesn't know where the trainer's table is," says Ted Heid,
director of Pacific Rim operations for the Seattle Mariners. "I
think he's going to be very, very successful in the U.S."

Heid, whose reports prompted the Mariners to sign outfielder
Ichiro Suzuki and relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki, has been
stalking Matsui for six years. His scouting report: "Extremely
strong arm. Outstanding range, comparable to Omar Vizquel's. Fast
as a bullet train." Suzuki, the quickest player in the American
League, says Matsui is even quicker than he is.

Affable and self-effacing, Matsui certainly has the quickest
smile east of Yokohoma. On this brisk autumn afternoon in
downtown Tokyo, he wears it with a black velvet blazer, a black
silk shirt and the gold peace medallion his wife, Mio, gave him
in October for his 28th birthday.

His spiky hair is dyed a reddish orange. Normally it's metallic
silver. Unless it's electric mustard. Or sea-urchin blue. "My
high school coach didn't like all the different colors," Matsui,
who speaks virtually no English, says through an interpreter.

Matsui's hair--a symbol of his longstanding desire to set himself
apart as a flashy, hip celebrity--is the subject of endless
discussion in the Japanese press. As is his relationship (or lack
of one) with his estranged father, a topic that Matsui won't
discuss.

He's happy to talk baseball, though. He was a short, frail
pitcher until his freshman year of high school. "I watched
American baseball on TV and realized all the players were strong
in the upper body," he says. "So I started lifting weights."

Too many weights. He injured his right elbow and required minor
surgery. "My doctor told me to cut down on my weight training,"
he says.

"Did you?"

He smiles and shakes his head slightly. "No, I kept it up. I was
quite stubborn."

At 18 he was drafted by the Seibu Lions and turned into a
shortstop. In his second year in the minors he came up for a cup
of kohee. He figured he'd quickly be farmed back out. Instead he
became the protege of Hiroshi Narahara, the Japanese Ozzie Smith.

Matsui hit from the right side exclusively until the advanced age
of 21. "The problem was, I couldn't hit righthanded pitchers," he
says. "A coach told me if I went 2 for 20 lefthanded, I'd have
the same batting average. So I practiced."

He now hits equally well from the right or left side. He homered
from both sides of the plate in a November 2002 game against a
traveling major league All-Star team. He hit .440 for the
seven-game series and outshone teammate Hideki Matsui,
who--confounded by two-seam, sinking fastballs--batted a mere
.138. "While Big Matsui was flailing away," Whiting says, "Little
Matsui was ripping major league pitching apart."

Big Matsui, of course, left Japan last fall after clubbing 332
home runs in 10 seasons and finished second in AL Rookie of the
Year voting. Little Matsui could have come over then too, but
passed. The Japanese papers claimed his wife didn't want to move.
"That is absolutely untrue," protests Matsui. "Only I can change
my mind."

After the season ended in October, he changed it several times.
During an Athens Olympics qualifying tournament in Sapporo, he
wavered on whether to go to the majors or stay in Japan and play
in the 2004 Summer Games. A teammate who had participated in the
Sydney Olympics in 2000 nearly sold him on staying. "He said
nothing in baseball compared," Matsui says. "It was a tough,
tough decision."

In the end Matsui turned down offers from Seibu and the Yomiuri
Giants, both rumored to be three-year deals in the $27 million
range. "I may have to accept less money in the U.S.," he says,
"but it's important for me to see how much I can improve as a
player."

To handle his Stateside negotiations he hired Arn Tellem, known
in the Japanese press by the oxymoron omoiyari no aru dairinin,
"the compassionate agent." It was Tellem who delivered Hideki
Matsui to the Yankees for three years and $21 million. "We feel
he understands the needs of the Japanese people," says
sportswriter Chiho Yamashita.

He also understands the needs of big league G.M.'s. Of the teams
currently in the Matsui hunt, seven--the Mariners, Red Sox,
Yankees, Anaheim Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers
and New York Mets--have strong working relationships with Tellem.
The other two, the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants, are
long shots. Neither is known as a big free-agent spender.

The Dodgers would seem to be the best fit. Los Angeles has a
large Japanese population (about 37,000) and an even larger hole
at short. On top of that, two Dodgers pitchers are Japanese
(Hideo Nomo and Kaz Ishii), and the team's managing partner (Bob
Daly) was once the boss of Tellem's wife, Nancy, now the
president of CBS Entertainment. The only factor working against
L.A. is money; the franchise is up for sale, and the transition
to new ownership may clog the team's cash flow.

Swag is not a problem for the woeful Mets, who covet Matsui and
are willing to move their top young player, shortstop Jose Reyes,
to second. The Mariners are flush with cash and short at short,
but seem more intrigued by free-agent pivotman Miguel Tejada, the
2002 American League MVP.

Anaheim is perhaps not as attractive a setting to a young Asian
family as L.A., New York or Seattle. Baltimore is an even harder
sell: Of the 4.8 million people in the Baltimore-Washington area
in the 2000 census, just 6,360 were Japanese. The Orioles would
like Matsui to visit Camden Yards, but Matsui isn't big on
touring. "I don't plan to travel much," he says.

He has already visited Yankee Stadium. He traveled to New York
City in October to watch a playoff game against the Red Sox,
buying three-year-old daughter Haruna a miniature Yankees bat and
a pinstripes-clad panda. "The Yankees were so big," he says,
"that they made the field look small."

Of course, the Yankees already have Derek Jeter and the Red Sox
have Nomar Garciaparra, All-Star shortstops who aren't going to
change positions. Assuming Boston doesn't trade Garciaparra,
who's in the final year of his contract, it would switch Matsui
to second; New York would put him either at second (trading
Alfonso Soriano or setting him to graze in the outfield) or third
(replacing Aaron Boone).

Matsui prefers to stay at his current position. "My feeling is
that I am a shortstop," he says. "I could learn a lot by playing
beside Jeter, but I would want the chance to someday compete for
his spot. It would not be easy to knock him off, but if I became
a Yankee, I would like to be given the chance."

The irony is absolutely Steinbrennian: By all accounts Matsui is
an all-around better defensive shortstop than Jeter. Moving the
Japanese star to another position would be like buying a plush
convertible and driving with the top up. "You'd eliminate most of
his talents as a shortstop--his hands, his quickness, his arm,"
says Heid. "I don't suggest having any player make a position
change, let alone one while making a country and culture change."

Some scouts wonder if Matsui can adapt to the tricky hops and
nuances of the natural grass infields in the U.S. In Japan's
Pacific League, where he plays, every ballpark but one has
artificial turf. "American grass looks really high," says Matsui.

As high as his ambitions.

COLOR PHOTO: JIJI PRESS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES DOUBLE TROUBLE Matsui is regarded as a great defensive shortstop and has also hit .300 for seven straight seasons.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JUN TAKAGI COLOR PHOTO: KYODO NEWS TO DYE FOR Kazuo (right), the younger and flashier of the two Matsuis, could join Hideki in New York--as a Met or a Yankee.

"MATSUI PLAYS HURT, and he doesn't know where the trainer's
table is," Heid says. "I think he's going to be very, very
successful in the U.S."

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)