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Yankees (yawn) deal with more mania

Matsuimania doesn't phase N.Y. veterans who are used to it all.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2003


TAMPA -- For years, Godzilla dominated the skyline of Tokyo and ravaged the countryside of Japan. Now his sights are set on the city of New York and the rest of America.

Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, nicknamed in his native Japan for a fictional biped reptile with a highly competitive spirit, is alive and well at Legends Field.

One week into his first spring training with the Yankees, Matsuimania is at a fevered pitch. There are more than 100 members of the Japanese media following his every move, photographing his at-bats, phoning in updates on his every interaction.

When Matsui spits, they start dialing.

Thousands of fans too are chronicling every glimpse of what many hope will be the franchise's latest blockbuster hit.

But for the highest paid team in professional sports, a team eager to bury the memory of losing in the first round of the postseason last year, even hype as large as a 15-story building isn't going to faze these players.

When you play in New York, when you're owned by George Steinbrenner, when your marquee boasts attractions such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens, Matsui is a mere matinee.

"Maybe for some of the new guys that are here, it'll be a challenge, but we're used to it," Jeter, the 28-year-old shortstop, said. "It was huge when (former Yankee Hideki) Irabu came over here. He was the first pitcher over here and he had a huge following when he first came. It was something we had to get used to.

"I don't know if I learned anything other than you have to be patient. You have to be patient with all the interviews and the requests. You're going to have to be patient with all the questions, now in two different languages. It's something you have get used to. You adjust to it. For him, he's used to it, that's what he's done over there. He's used to the hype. There doesn't appear to be a problem."

David Wells, the 39-year-old left-handed pitcher, said the team's history of bringing in stars, both national and international, makes the clubhouse virtually immune to that type of distraction.

"We've always had that," Wells said, referring to Irabu and Cuban-defector Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. "It's a little different in that they didn't have the total coverage that Matsui is going to have. But we have a job to do. We can't get distracted by the cameras and then interviews and some of the nonsense questions we'll get from time to time. You have to ignore it and move on. When it's time to go out there and do your job, that's what you get paid for, that's what we're going to do."

"I had interaction with the Japanese press every year when we would go there, so I'm used to it," the Yankees' latest Cuban defector, right-handed pitcher Jose Contreras, said. "They are doing their job. I don't have a problem with it. They are respectful and understanding and I enjoy interacting with them. At the same token, I have to go do my job and they respect that."

The Yankees are banking that Matsui, a 28-year-old leftfielder signed to a three-year, $21-million contract, will become a headache for the rest of the American League.

They are banking that the 6-foot-1, 210-pound left-hander's compact swing and obvious strength will produce numbers close or equal to the staggering ones put up in Japan. Through 10 seasons, the three-time MVP of Japan's Central League hit 332 home runs. Last season, Matsui he hit .334, with 50 home runs and 107 RBIs.

He started in leftfield Monday and went 0-for-2 in his first intrasquad game, batting fifth.

"This guy is big, I mean he's big. He's even bigger than Godzilla," said infielder Fernando Seguignol, who speaks a bit of Japanese and sits next to Matsui in the clubhouse. "I look at him and for 28 years old, what he did over there was surprising. The numbers he put up (in Japan) were (astounding) and it wouldn't surprise me if he puts up those numbers here."

For that to happen, the Yankees coaches and players know two things need to take place over the next six weeks: They have to get comfortable with Matsui, and Matsui has to get comfortable with them.

"I'm aware of the different culture, being in a different country with different teammates and food," Matsui said through interpreter Rogelio Kahlon. "But my approach is to be open to all of that and adjust accordingly."

Jeter said getting Matsui acclimated to life and baseball in America will help not just Matsui but the team.

"You try to make him comfortable," Jeter said. "Obviously this is a big hurdle for him because of the language barrier. He's learning some English, but he still has a ways to go. ... There will be an adjustment period for him. You joke around and treat him like everyone else.

"I'm sure I'll be able to give him some extra help. He's moving into the same building that I live in in New York so I'm sure he'll see me a lot."

The signs are already positive.

His first two days of spring training, with media concentration at a high level, the Yankees situated Matsui at a specific end of the clubhouse away from the stars. They gave him an end locker and placed an empty locker between him and Seguignol.

But by the end of last week, Matsui moved into the empty locker, to be closer to his teammate.

"I felt a little lonely over there," he said. "A little lonely."

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