Yankees' hot-hitting Matsui leads a tame life off the field

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui makes $7 million a year but his life in America doesn't appear too flashy.

He does his own laundry and cleaning in his New York bachelor pad, and prefers a quiet sushi joint to hitting the town with teammates.

Six months after his move to the United States, the outfielder Japanese fans nicknamed "Godzilla" is trying hard not to become too Americanized. And he's enjoying his privacy -- as a superstar for the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants, he was known by virtually everyone in Japan.

"I don't run into many fans on the streets. I can walk normally even in the daytime," said Matsui, 29, speaking in Japanese in a recent interview.

His lifestyle of moderation and discipline enabled him to maintain a streak of 1,250 consecutive appearances without missing a game, the second longest in Japan, before he signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees in January. He was a three-time Japanese MVP, and hit 332 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants during his 10-year career in Japan.

Recovered from a bad May

He hit a grand slam on opening day at Yankee Stadium, then slumped in May before improving. Matsui now ranks high on the American League lists of RBI and doubles leaders, with a batting average that hovers around .300.

"I came to a different world, and everything I do here is new to me," he said.

Except, of course, baseball.

He sees little difference in the way the sport is played -- and how fans react -- in Japan and the United States. But American pitches still bother him.

"Many pitchers here throw fastballs that, actually, slightly curve," Matsui said, adding that fastballs from Japanese pitchers usually maintain a straight spin. "Maybe the way they train them (pitchers) is different."

Matsui changed from his favorite type of bat, which he used for 10 years in Japan, to better adjust himself to North American baseball. He gave up a Japanese wood called aodamo and switched to bats made of maple or white ash, which are said to be more suitable to hit balls used in America.

Like other Japanese player coming into the majors, Matsui had to adjust to the culture as well -- a transition helped by the fact that his translator and agent follow him almost everywhere.

"You have to have someone to talk to," teammate Derek Jeter said.

Personal press corps

About 70 Japanese journalists chase Matsui wherever he goes. And Matsui gives a personal press conference for them after every game, no matter how he played.

"I never feel the media is putting pressure on me," Matsui said. "As I had long been with the (Yomiuri) Giants, which is always followed by reporters, I am sort of used to dealing with them."

Here in America, Matsui often prefers to dine with his agent and Japanese reporters -- keeping up the "lone wolf" lifestyle he led in Japan, where he limited the time he spent with teammates.

"American players seem to socialize with each other only on the field and in the clubhouse, while Japanese players often go out together after games," said Hiroshi Kanda, a "Matsui-beat" reporter for Japan's Kyodo News Agency. "In that sense, Matsui was more like an American player even in Japan."

Overall, Yankees say "Mats" has made an impressive transition.

"Baseball's baseball. The plate's the same size over here as it is over there," teammate David Delluci said. "If it is a tough adjustment for him, it's not showing on the field."

Matsui says he is picking up English -- albeit slowly. His goal, off the field, is to learn the language well enough so he can enjoy one of his favorite pastimes.

"I used to go see musicals in Japan so I would like to see them in New York, which is famous for musicals -- but I hope I will understand them in English," he said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: