|Monday, July 7
Updated: July 11, 6:58 PM ET
Matsui earned All-Star nod the hard way
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Hideki Matsui bows his head ever so subtly when the conversational road leads to the All-Star Game. To say the Japanese star is respectful of the Midsummer Classic is an understatement; Matsui practically reveres the game and selection process.
But those who've seen Matsui on a daily basis -- and have seen him travel the long and winding road to major-league respectability -- say the Yankee deserves that starting nod, even without the ballot-stuffing help of his countrymen.
Other than Ichiro Suzuki, no other major-league player has had to overcome obstacles similar to Matsui's, both professional and cultural. That .311 average and 64 RBIs carry greater weight when you realize Matsui arrived in the big leagues without any weapons to combat the cut-fastball and sinking two-seamer -- two pitches that are virtually non-existent in Japan.
Even the traditional four-seam fastball posed a threat to Matsui, since Japanese pitches don't throw nearly as hard as major leaguers.
"That's what worried me at first, because the pitching here is better," Matsui said through an interpreter the other day. "There was quite a bit of adjustment for me. I was worried if I would be good enough to play here. The sinker and the cutter were much different than what I was used to."
It didn't take long for major-league pitchers to exploit Matsui's vulnerability. He hit just three HRs in 225 at-bats in April and May -- a startling drop-off for a someone who'd earned the nickname "Godzilla."
Maybe it was unrealistic build-up, likening any hitter to a monster. But Matsui was Japan's greatest HR hitter, and if the Yankees weren't expecting him to slug 50 as he did last year for the Yomiuri Giants, they were projecting at least 25-30, especially at home.
But the Bombers were stunned to see how short and defensive Matsui's swing was -- absent of the traditional home-run hitter's uppercut. Not only was Matsui ignoring Yankee Stadium's short right-field wall, he was barely hitting fly balls.
He batted just .261 in April, .255 in May and -- with a steady stream of ground balls to second base -- was turning into a softer version of Wade Boggs.
Matsui's decline was so noticeable, Japanese reporters began to ask Joe Torre just when the outfielder would be demoted to Class AAA Columbus. After all, the Yankees had dispatched another international star, Jose Contreras, for minor-league tutoring. So why not Matsui?
But Torre and GM Brian Cashman never relented. Even as Matsui's average shrunk -- and as he dropped in the batting order from No. 5 to No. 7 -- the Yankees saw the potential for a breakthrough.
As Torre said, "Every game, Hideki did something to contribute. There'd be an RBI here, or a big base hit there. Or else he'd move runners along, or make a nice play in the outfield. He never stopped contributing."
The Yankees' patience with Matsui became an actual necessity on May 21, when Bernie Williams went on the disabled list with a knee injury. Without warning, Matsui was suddenly switched to center field, where he was asked to oversee a rookie (Juan Rivera) and lumbering veteran (Ruben Sierra) in left field before the Yankees acquired Karim Garcia. And Matsui found himself covering more ground than Raul Mondesi in right-center, too.
The experiment could've failed, but Matsui finally broke through. Not only did he play a flawless center field, but he finally solved the mystery of all those cutters and sinkers. Matsui batted .394 in June, including a modest six HRs in 104 at-bats.
That's why Matsui's .311 average looks so impressive, and why the Yankees are unanimous in their belief that Matsui has every right to consider himself a legitimate All-Star starter.
"He belongs. There's no question he belongs," Torre said. "I'm not saying that because of where he came from, whether it was Japan or the minor leagues. I believe the All-Star Game should be for players who've had the best first half. And Hideki's been great."
What Torre doesn't say is how crowded Matsui's airspace has been lately. Just as the medium-sized army of Japanese reporters chronicled his every failed at-bat in April and May, he's just as overwhelmed with interview requests today.
No other Yankee has to deal with as many questions, not even Derek Jeter or Jason Giambi or Roger Clemens. And unlike his teammates, Matsui has the added burden of conducting those Q-and-A's through an interpreter -- essentially doubling the time it takes to complete his media chores.
But Matsui has never once dismissed a reporter. He answers every question politely and thoughtfully because, in his words, "I feel that it's my responsibility."
Matsui knew that intense media scrutiny would be part of the major-league equation. So would the inevitable initiation slump, as he learned just how mean a late-breaking cut-fastball can be.
But Matsui endured, which is why that .311 average should carry as asterisk: product of the long and winding road.
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.