Godzilla's breakout is stuff made for movies

October 20, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

NEW YORK - When Hideki Matsui made his decision to leave Japan to play baseball in America, he worried people would lose their love for him because of his selfishness.

Japanese baseball had already lost Ichiro, a hit-machine outfielder who wielded his deft bat with the artistry of a tennis racket, diminishing the star quotient in the Japan League. It was a mixed blessing for fans who take pride in Japanese stars good enough to be stars in Major League Baseball but la ment the talent drain. Now the second-best position player, Matsui, was on his way across the Pacific to the Yankees.

As he announced his decision, Matsui asked his Tokyo Yomiuri Giants owners to understand and the baseball-obsessed people of his country to forgive him.

"I hope people don't think I'm a traitor." Matsui said.

Well, now what will they think?

"This is big. Huge. Every newspaper in the country will have his picture on the front page." said Hiroshi Kand of Kyodo News, one of dozens of Japanese media at Yankee Stadium last night where history was made.

With the three-run homer he drilled over the center-field wall in the first inning, Matsui became the first Japanese player to hit a home run in a World Series.

Move over, Mickey Mantle. There's a new twist on Yankee postseason power. Yankee fans in the frigid ballpark for Game 2 certainly reveled in it -beckoning Matsui for a curtain call after pushing the Yankees to a 3-0 lead en route to routing the Florida Marlins and evening the Series.

Back home, the celebration was inconceivably louder.

"It [was] Monday already in Japan. It [was] 10 o"clock in the morning in Japan." Kand said, looking at his watch. "Everyone is watching TV at their office. Everyone will be going crazy."

Godzilla has his power stroke back.

Some people may be pleasantly surprised to see the left- handed Matsui serving as a crusher of long balls this October, but just because America has not seen Matsui pumping balls over the fence in his so-called rookie season doesn't mean this is foreign territory.

In the 2000 Japan Series, the Giants faced the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. It was a dream match-up: Yomiuri, managed by Shigeo 'Mr. Giants' Nagashima against the Hawks, led by Japan's (and the world's) career home run king, Sadaharu Oh. Matsui, who led the Japan league with 42 homers, drove in 108 and hit .316 that year in 2000, hit three home runs in that Japan Series.

Matsui is Godzilla in Japan because of his home-run prow ess. Though the power did not immediately translate to the major leagues, Matsui was such a consummately professional hitter and fundamentally terrific defensive player and base runner, it hardly mattered. He has been a rock-solid asset to the Yankees.

"People will say he made a good decision. So did the Yankees." Kand said.

Oddly, Matsui's surge in the first inning did for the Yankee offense what none of the Yankees coaches or Hall of Fame consultants could do. Alfonso Soriano followed Matsui's homer with a two-run shot in the fourth, giving the Yankees a 6-0 lead - their largest lead this postseason since the 8-1 win over Minnesota in Game 4 of the AL Division Series.

Since then, the Yankees have been hurt by slumping designated hitter Jason Giambi and leadoff hitter Soriano. Both of them look lost in space: Giambi swinging like he's trying to dislocate his spine and Soriano clueless.

It had gotten so bad, particularly for Soriano, that Team Yankee had been working overtime, trying to coax some semblance of an offense out of its most dy namic and high-priced offensive stars and tinkering with idea of more lineup changes. It worked, temporarily, for Giambi when Joe Torre dropped him from cleanup to No. 7 in Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 1 of the World Series. It got two bases-empty shots out of Giambi, who was batting third for Game 2 and actually drove a double to the opposite field. Finally!

For Game 2, all hands were on deck for Soriano, whose talent is dynamic but whose failures are equally eye-popping.

"You look at what he does. He's got poor pitch selection and by now, it looks like he thinks the only way out of this thing is to get two hits everytime he takes a swing." said Yankee hitting coach Rick Down.

Even Reggie Jackson, the original Mr. October, made a point to speak with Soriano after Game 1, when he went 1-for-5 in Game 1 after batting .133 against the Red Sox, including four strikeouts in Game 7.

"I try to support him, say a few of the right things, keep the guy emotionally in there. If it was easy, we"d all be doing it. I'd still be playing." Jackson said.

Well, Jackson doesn't need to be playing for the Yankees. At least not last night. As a home-run hitter, Matsui was as big in Japan as Jackson was in the U.S., maybe more so. Matsui was well prepared to come in and take on some of the offensive load. That it took until a cold October night during base ball's prime time to show his stuff only makes it better.

Besides his legend as a power hitter, something else served Matsui well in his transition to the Yankees. The Giants are owned by Tsuneo Watanabe, an autocratic septuagenarian who Japanese baseball writers say is every bit George Steinbrenner's equal.

Of course, just as Watanabe never leveled a harsh word against the congenial country boy Matsui, the Boss will find it especially dishonorable now to utter a word about the $21 million he plunked down for Japan's premier power hitter.

Godzilla hits. Godzilla homers. Godzilla rules.

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