Godzilla Invades America

Look out America! Japan’s latest export is not a car or electronic gadget, it’s a giant – the Yomiuri Giant they call Godzilla. On December 19th 2002, Japanese baseball slugger Hideki Matsui, a.k.a. “Godzilla” agreed to a $21 million contract with the New York Yankees and the 186 cm/95 kg power-hitting outfielder is leaving Tokyo for American shores to join the wave of Japanese baseball players who are making it big in the big leagues.

Godzilla is perhaps the biggest Japanese baseball star yet to join the major leagues. The eyes of the country of Japan have been on Matsui since his days as a high school player in the televised 1992 Koshien National High School Baseball Championships where he was intentionally walked five times, once with the bases loaded. Matsui went on to become the Number One draft pick by Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants in 1993 and now at 28 years old, is the three-time Most Valuable Player of Japan’s Central League.

There have been doubts whether a Japanese baseball player could really make it in the major leagues. Ichiro Suzuki helped to lay these doubts to rest when he won both the Rookie Of The Year and Most Valuable Player Awards in 2001 with his speed, great throwing arm and skillful hitting.  However, Major League Baseball has yet to see a Japanese Power Hitter. 2003 will be the year for Hideki Matsui to prove that Japanese players can come over to the States and slug with the best of them. Matsui may be Japan's strongest power hitter since Sadaharu Oh, the former Yomiuri Giant who broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record in 1978. According to the World’s Homerun King, Matsui “has tremendous ability and discipline.  He has brought the art of hitting to new heights in Japan and he is certainly equal in many ways to the major leaguers.” 

More than a dozen Japanese have come to the U.S. to play in the Major Leagues including Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki, L.A. Dodger Hideo Nomo, San Francisco Giant Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Texas Ranger Hideki Irabu and others who have played for the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Montreal Expos and the Kansas City Royals.  Hideki Matsui may be the latest player to head to the US, but he will not be the last.  Others are on their way, and at the Japan All-Star Series, all eyes were on not one, but two Matsuis.  In addition, to the powerhitter Hideki, Kazuo Matsui, Shortstop for the Seibu Lions was turning the heads of the Major Leaguers and most agreed that both “Godzilla” and “Little Matsui” were the top players to look out for.

As his coaches and colleagues looked on with mixed emotions about Godzilla’s departure from Japanese baseball, Matsui donned his Yomiuri Giants uniform for the last time in November 2002 to take part in the Major League Baseball VS Japanese Professional Baseball All-Star Series. The Japanese players, coaches and fans were faced with the paradoxical situation of having to bid farewell to a local hero who will be greatly missed while at the same time excited about the attention that Godzilla’s success in the Major Leagues may bring to Japanese baseball.

The following are excerpts and translations of interviews with Tokyo Journal Editor Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie.

“It’s definitely a positive thing when you think about the fact that Ichiro achieved success in the U.S. and now Matsui is going there.  Their success will stimulate players into believing that they can be successful in the U.S. too.  In other words, they are helping to set a higher aim or goal for Japanese baseball players.  Achieving their dreams of playing in the Major Leagues will motivate other players to try to improve their technical skills which will in turn raise the whole level of baseball in Japan.   Back when I played, there were just no opportunities to cross over, so it was basically impossible. If I would have had the chance, I would have loved the challenge of playing in the major leagues and I am very envious of the opportunities the players have today.”
Baseball legend Sadaharu Oh on Japanese baseball players going to the U.S

“There are a lot of beautiful things in Japan. There is a lot of talent in Japan. It’s good for us to come here and watch. Not only has being a participant in this tournament been a great experience, but also to see the great talent of Japanese players has been a wonderful opportunity.  It’s a lot more exciting than some people think it might be. We were warned in the United States, “Don’t go there thinking you’re going to rock their world. They can play!” So, it’s a great experience for us to see how much talent there is in this country.”
Diamondback pitcher Miguel Batista on Japanese baseball

“I think it’s good for Matsui himself to have the opportunity to play in Major League baseball.  As a Japanese player, I am glad to see he’s coming to the U.S. and I think he’ll do well.”

MLB star Ichiro Suzuki on Hideki Matsui

“As his coach, I am sad to see Matsui go, but I do wish him the best of luck. He has played hard for quite some time now and his contract allows him to be a free agent, so he deserves to play where he wishes, but we sure will miss him.”

Yomiuri Giants Manager Hara on Hideki Matsui

“He is good with the fastball and he has a good eye for the ball. He is very aggressive and I think he can be a success in the United States. I based my pitching on his numbers. This means that I’ve got to have power because he’s got a good average.”

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez on Hideki Matsui

“They’re good. They play the game right! There are huge expectations about Hideki Matsui. You can tell he’s a good player because he’s got great hands, he can hit good, he’s smooth, but I think there’s a lot of hype right now, so that’s why he hasn’t hit any home runs this time. Anybody that hits that many home runs, it doesn’t matter what league he’s in. I’d love to have him on my team. He’s a good hitter, and anytime you’ve got a good hitter, you want him on your team.”

L.A. Dodgers pitcher Eric Gagne on Japanese baseball and Hideki Matsui

“I like both Big Matsui and Little Matsui. The big Matsui’s got a nice swing. He’ll be fine in the U.S. He’s just got to keep his focus on the game and not let the media pressure get to him. I especially like Little Matsui. He’s definitely Major League material. I’m looking forward to both of them coming to the U.S.”

MLB slugger Barry Bonds on Japanese baseball’s two Matsuis.

“They come out here, play the game hard and they are going to execute the game - no matter what the cost is. You know, in the States you might get more of a team that is going to try and drive the ball out of the park, but the Japanese are going out to hit and run, and play the fundamental type of game, more of what I’m accustomed to! I think Hideki Matsui’s real good! I saw him using all parts of the field, taking the ball out of the park and that type of quality is very rare in any type of hitter, so he’s something that can be special. I love Kazuo Matsui. He’s a real good player. He’s going to take my job!”

World Series star David Eckstein on Japanese baseball players and the two Matsuis

“The players in the U.S. are power hitters more so than they are over here. That’s not to say that the players over here don’t hit home runs, because they do! One of the things I really like about Japanese players is the great discipline they demonstrate, and the way they behave during and after the game. I just wish that they could rest a little more. I believe that they overwork sometimes, but that is the way they do it here. The conditions that they have are great, but sometimes they overwork and their bodies get tired, especially the pitchers – that is why they have injuries. They are good players. They understand all of the fundamentals of the game. A lot of them can play in the States on a worldwide basis. They always do everything hard. I love the way that they play the game. They are always alert and aware of what may happen. I think Hideki Matsui could be great in the U.S. It solely depends on him though. He has to adapt to a new culture, different environment, and things like that. I like the shortstop Matsui. I love him! I think he’s going to be a tremendous player in the United States.”

Baseball great Sandy Alomar, Sr. on Japanese baseball and the two Matsuis

“We knew they were good when we first came over here. They beat us the first three games. We’re battling back trying to win the series. We’re playing our butts off now – not that we weren’t the first three games. They just beat us flat out. You’ve got to play hard to beat these guys. All of these guys could play in the States as far as I am concerned. Hideki Matsui’s got a great approach at the plate. He takes a lot of pitches. I think he’s going to do great. I’d like to see the short stop over there – Kazuo. He looks real good. I like him a lot. He’d be a good lead-off hitter for somebody.”

Toronto Blue Jay Eric Hinske on Japanese baseball and the two Matsuis

“Kazuo’s my boy. I was here the last couple of years when he was on a farm team and then in the big leagues with us. I told him he was going to be a star but he is so humble. He said, “No, maybe not” He’s got fine tools. He’s worked hard. He stayed humble, but he stayed aggressive and I think he’s a wonderful kid. Really, by far, the all-round best player in Japan. He’s not a homerun hitter like Hideki Matsui because he doesn’t have the power. I think he’s going to have a smashing year next year and we’ll see how it goes from there. Hideki Matsui’s a wonderful player. There’s a lot of pressure playing in this gig. I know first hand because when I went back to play for the Florida Marlins, there was a lot of pressure put on me as I was the only power hitter. If he goes to New York, there will be a lot of good hitters around him so there won’t be as much pressure on him. Believe it or not going to a team like Seattle might be even more difficult to some degree on the field because Seattle doesn’t have a true power hitter. So then there would be a lot of pressure on him to be the guy to hit a lot of home runs. New York – they’ve got a power hitter. They’ve got superstars, so there should be less pressure.”

Former Japanese and Major League Baseball slugger Orestes Destrade on the two Matsuis

“Japanese and Americans are so different. I like them both. The American guys are always hitting and looking for power. The game is different here, but there are some great players like Kazuo Matsui. He’s the best. He’s unbelievable.”

Japanese professional baseball MVP Alex Cabrera on baseball and Kazuo Matsui

“He’s going to the U.S. as a representative of Japan and I very much look forward to watching him succeed in the major leagues.”

Kazuo Matsui on Hideki Matsui

“He’s a wonderful player and he’s living up to everyone’s expectations. If he is stealing the show, then that’s the way it should be.”

Hideki Matsui on Kazuo Matsui

U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker on the U.S.-Japan 2002 All-Star Series
“It’s a great American sport and a great Japanese sport. This is sort of symbolic of the friendship between our great countries.”

Staff Continued

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