|Wednesday, April 30
Ichiro, Matsui hit the center stage
By Jim Caple
The greater Tokyo metropolitan area has more people than any other city on the planet, with a population density (17,500 people per square mile) that is more than three times higher than New York City. The city is so crowded that the subway system employs uniformed men in white gloves to shove passengers into the trains so that the doors can close. It is so crowded that a friend of mine who regularly rode the Tokyo subway said he counted 16 people touching him at one time.
"I don't know what will happen,'' Ichiro said of the media onslaught, "but hopefully those days will go by fast.''
Don't count on it. Ichiro vs. Matsui is the most anticipated meeting of Japanese icons since Godzilla battled Mothra. Ichiro vs. Godzilla is also falling during Golden Week, when many Japanese workers are on vacation and able to watch the games without skipping work.
This is power vs. speed and finesse. The man named after a fire-breathing monster against a man who keeps his bats in a humidor. The beloved/hated Yankee/Yomiuri Giant against the ultra-cool Mariner. Matsui vs. the man who paved the way for Matsui.
Ichiro declined to take credit for clearing the path for Matsui to come to the majors, but it sure wasn't Tsuyoshi Shinjo who convinced the Yankees that a Japanese position player was worth a $21 million contract. Ichiro led the American League in hitting and won the MVP award two years ago, then followed it up with a .321 average last year.
"None of the Japanese players who hit the longball have come over here,'' Ichiro said through a translator. "I am in awe of his determination to play here. He has a brave mind to come over here. I don't know him personally but what I heard about him is that his attitude toward baseball is great and sincere, so I hope he can have great years in coming years.
"But at the same time, looking at him as a Mariner -- the Yankees are a tough team to beat and we always want to beat him. So I don't want him to be successful (when we play) because we want to beat him.''
Ichiro and Matsui have much in common. The two were the best and most famous players in Japan. They both felt compelled to play and prove themselves in the U.S. And both, amazingly, have fathers who run a museum dedicated to their respective son. Now, what are the odds of that? I mean, it's not like there is a Barry Bonds and an Alex Rodriguez museum over here. And over there is a photo of five-year-old Barry ignoring his first reporter.
The Ichiro Museum, by the way, even has Ichiro's first retainer from his orthodonist. The only way Matsui's father could beat that is if he has Hideki's umbilical cord laying around somewhere.
The two players also are very different. Ichiro is guarded with reporters -- like Bonds, he traveled with his own p.r. people during last year's major-league tour of Japan -- while Matsui is much more open and outgoing. Ichiro is a slap hitter and superb outfielder. Matsui is a power hitter and an average outfielder.
There already is a rivalry growing between the two players. Back when both played in Japan, Ichiro once grumbled that "I could hit .400 and still Matsui would get more attention.'' And despite the gracious words expressed recently, Matsui and Ichiro appear to be, as gossip columnist Walter Winchell used to say, "Don't invite 'ems." In other words, they're not the biggest fans of each other.
Even though the two played against each other during All-Star games, the 1996 Japan series and last fall's major league All-Star tour of Japan and even though there is a photo of the two together at the Ichiro museum, Ichiro oddly said recently that he's never met or competed against Matsui. If they did get along, it would have been natural for Ichiro to offer Matsui some advice on playing in the majors last fall, but Ichiro's comments indicate no such conversations ever took place.
The two nearly faced each other as pitcher and batter during a Japan All-Star Game. Running out of pitchers, the Pacific League manager sent Ichiro to the mound to face Matsui. The Central League manager, however, considered it undignified and sent a pitcher to pinch-hit for Matsui.
"That could have been a good memory for me but it didn't happen,'' Ichiro said. "(But) had that happened, both of us would have had different fortunes and different paths than we've had and so I'm glad it didn't happen.''
So, this could get pretty interesting. Especially if Matsui's season is anything close to Ichiro's rookie year and the two face each other in the playoffs.
And it could get even more interesting next year when shortstop Kazuo Matsui is eligible for free agency. Little Matsui may be even better than Big Matsui.
One more Japanese note
Whether that continues remains to be seen, but Matsui does appear willing to market himself more than the reserved Ichiro. And just as Japanese companies have bought billboard space at Safeco Field, a Japanese company manufacturing heavy equipment took out a billboard in the upper deck in right field at Yankee Stadium, hoping it would be seen during many Godzilla blasts this season. One of his blasts sailed by the sign but as a friend in Japan e-mailed me, it's doubtful that even the most rabid Matsui fan watching the game was suddenly hit with an uncontrollable urge to buy a dump truck.
Boxscore lines of the week
One of those rallies was Florida's when the Marlins scored five runs on three homers in the ninth against St. Louis, sending the game into extra innings. Make that, extra, extra, extra innings.
How long was the game? It was baseball's longest in a decade (the Twins and Cleveland went 22 innings in 1993). It was so long that Jim Edmonds' league-leading batting average dropped from .414 to .379. It was so long that the two teams used 15 pitchers who threw 622 pitches, allowed 35 hits and walked 21 batters. It was so long that neither team scored for 10 innings after Florida's five-run rally.
And it was so long that Fernando Vina was hitless in nine at-bats ... and the game still wasn't over. It isn't often that a batter goes 0-for-9. It's even rarer when one goes 0-for-10. After going hitless in his previous 12 at-bats (including his final three Saturday night), Vina avoided the exclusive 0-for-10 club by singling home the winning run in the 20th inning to give St. Louis the eventual victory.
10 AB, 0 R, 1 H, 1 RBI
In a 25-hour span, the two teams played 29 innings, sent 236 batters to the plate and 21 pitchers to the mound.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
From left field
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.