Matsui starts over with Angels

BY foxsports • March 17, 2010

New team. New coast. New lifestyle. New highways to learn. New fans to impress.

New nickname, too?

Hideki Matsui has been known as “Godzilla” for years, both in Japan and the U.S. But now that he has left the Yankees for the Angels, I wondered if the reigning World Series MVP was in the mood for wholesale change.

So, I asked him the other day in the Angels clubhouse. Before Matsui could answer, he was preempted by a teammate who had overheard.

"Stan," said the deadpan voice.

It was Torii Hunter.

The suggestion drew some laughter. But Matsui wasn’t convinced.

"I think it will be the same," he said through interpreter Roger Kahlon. "Actually, I do like it. It originated in Japan. It’s also familiar here in the United States."

So feel free to stick with the obvious slogan: Godzilla goes to Hollywood.

Really, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Consistency has been a hallmark of Matsui’s career. Even though the 35-year-old leaped from one American League power to another, there’s no reason to change now.

Ask him if there are any career landmarks that he would like to achieve before retirement, he says that he hasn’t really thought about that.

Raise the issue of whether he might finish his career in the Japanese professional leagues, where he starred for the Yomiuri Giants, and he says he hasn’t given that any thought, either.

Matsui’s focus is set firmly on the season in front of him. And he has a very straightforward objective.

"My No. 1 goal is to make sure that I play in every game," he said. "If I play in every game, then I think everything else should come around and the numbers should come about."

Understand that Matsui was once a lock to play the full 162. He played in every game during his first three seasons with the Yankees. Add that to his durable tenure in Japan, and Matsui played 1,768 games in a row into the 2006 season.

But then he fractured his left wrist and hasn’t been able to maintain the same workload since. He suffered a hamstring injury in 2007, and trouble with both knees prevented him from playing in the outfield last year.

When asked if he’s ready to start a new streak of consecutive games, Matsui replied, “Let’s keep it conservative and start from five games.”

The Angels have said that they plan to give Matsui some spot duty in the outfield this season. Matsui has done defensive drills this spring but has strictly appeared as a designated hitter in games. He said he would like to play at least one game in the outfield prior to Opening Day, to ensure that he’s ready.

But everyone knows that Matsui is here to hit. He has a career .304 average in Japan, .292 in the States. Oh, and he batted .615 with three home runs in the World Series last year.

Matsui’s durability remains a question – but the same can be said of Vladimir Guerrero, the slugger he has replaced. (You could create quite a stir by polling a group of scouts on which of the two will play more games this year.) But Matsui is a far more patient hitter than Guerrero, and manager Mike Scioscia needs some walks in his lineup now that Chone Figgins, the ’09 league leader, is gone.

Matsui has frequently batted fourth during spring training, an indication that he will be called upon to protect Hunter, who hits third. The relationship between Matsui and Hunter – on and off the field – will be crucial to the Angels’ success.

Despite the recent controversy surrounding Hunter’s comments to USA Today about Latinos and African-Americans in the major leagues, he hasn’t lost his ability to unify people of different backgrounds. It isn’t an accident that Hunter’s locker is directly beside Matsui’s in the Angels clubhouse. During my visit there Sunday, I saw them laughing and joking with one another.

"He makes Matsui comfortable," one member of the Japanese media told me. "He’s a key person for Matsui this year."

Matsui is only under contract with the Angels for one season, at a $6 million salary, but said that he would like to continue playing “as long as I hold up, physically and mentally.” His agent, Arn Tellem, said Matsui initially told him that he would like to play in the major leagues for 10 years.

This season will be Matsui’s eighth.

“I’m confident he has many productive years ahead of him,” Tellem said this week.

Matsui takes great pride in his craft and is known for having an outstanding work ethic. He cares deeply about the game, even if it isn’t always easy to tell by the expression on his face; Kahlon, who has worked as Matsui’s interpreter since he came to the Yankees, said he has "exceptional emotional control."

But Kahlon cited one noteworthy example when Matsui let down his guard – on the final night of the World Series last November, after the Yankees had won and Matsui had accepted his MVP award.

"What I remember is when we all went back into the clubhouse," Kahlon said. "He came to me and gave me a hug. That’s when I realized that he was very emotional about the whole thing.

"To begin with, in Japanese culture, it’s about bowing. There’s not a lot of body contact or hugging. Add to that, he doesn’t really express his emotions. He’s very even all the time. So when he gave me a hug, to me, that said a lot. He was very emotional about winning."

Matsui’s humility, willingness to play through pain, and team-first ethic endeared him to fans in New York. He is certain to have the same appeal on the opposite coast, even though I doubt he’ll have much interest in Hollywood glitz.

The Japanese media members covering Matsui – and that group numbered around 40 on Sunday – seem to genuinely enjoy the assignment. And why not? Matsui is exceedingly likeable and approachable for a player of his stature. Contrast that with, say, the hard-luck troupe tasked with following Barry Bonds during his pursuit of the home run record.

Despite the immense pressure that accompanied his tenure with the Yankees – a star in New York, an icon in Japan – Matsui was a success story there. He arrived amid great expectations and left a celebrated champion.

With the Angels, he has to stay healthy and continue hitting. I think he will. And here’s hoping that LA finds some entertainment value in such reliability.

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