Seibu star now prized free agent

TOKYO -- Another Japanese star wants to play in the major

Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui, a seven-time All-Star in
Japan, said Monday at a news conference that he's decided to pursue
a big-league career in North America.

``It's been my dream to play in the majors,'' Matsui said.
``This represents a new challenge for me.''

Matsui, 28, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Hideki Matsui
and Ichiro Suzuki, who quickly became major-league stars after
coming over from Japan.

Kazuo Matsui is a free agent and can sign with any big league
team that wants him. Several clubs, including the Boston Red Sox,
Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners, are
said to be interested in the speedy switch-hitter.

Known as ``Little Matsui,'' he is not related to Yankees
outfielder Hideki Matsui, who came over from Japan before last
season and finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

The 5-foot-9 Kazuo Matsui batted .305 with 33 homers, 84 RBI
and 179 hits this year for the Lions. He spent several weeks
mulling whether to remain in Japan or go to the majors.

``It was a tough decision to make,'' he said. ``I wondered
whether I should play at home or go overseas.''

He traveled to New York after the season to watch a playoff game
between the Red Sox and Yankees and returned to Japan saying he was
impressed with the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium.

Kazuo Matsui's departure would be another in a series of marquee
players to leave Japan for the major leagues. Others include
Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo and Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki.

Kazuo Matsui was a key member of Japan's national team that
recently won three straight games at the Asian championship to
clinch a spot in the Athens Olympics.

He has expressed a desire to represent Japan at the Olympics but
won't be able to if he signs with a major-league team because the
Olympics take place during the big league season.

``I also wondered about the possibility of competing in the
Olympics for Japan but my sincere feelings told me to go to the
majors,'' he said.

Kazuo Matsui joined the Lions in 1994 and won three Gold Glove
Awards. He led the Pacific League in steals in '97 and '99.

He was named MVP in 1998 when the Lions won the Pacific League
pennant before losing to the Yokohama BayStars in the Japan Series.