Tag Archives: Houston Astros

Other sides of cheating

Got a message from a player this morning, who noted that his final major league game was a disastrous relief effort at Houston in 2017, after which he was demoted and later released.

Not just wins and losses

Having watched highlights of the game in question, the Astros teed off on a lot of miss-located pitches in a game that was already a blowout. It’s hard to do much analysis since the actual game videos from 2017 are not made available now on MLB.TV. Because of that, we can’t see the pitch sequences or hear people hitting jumping into beanbag chairs or whatever it was they were doing.

“…Got killed never got called up again. Cost me more days in the bigs, my pension, etc.” the pitcher wrote.

It struck home like never before that there is another whole side to the damage done that had nothing to do with the Los Angeles Dodgers losing the World Series — but rather a corps of vulnerable players whose professional careers were adversely affected.

The spontaneous outburst of righteous indignation that has occurred in MLB, has been a rare occurrence in Japan, where the Astros’ brand of cheating is, like backstory of “The shot heard round the world,” part of history

Japan’s conflicting attitudes

Stealing signs and transmitting them to batters used to be a cottage industry in Japan, where the old stories are told with a sense of nostalgia. These things were common in a time when NPB was relatively lawless and violence on the field and in the stands was common.

The cheating became so prolific from video and from people stationed outside the field of play who could observe the catchers’ signs when no runners were on, that pitchers and catchers resorted to using tables taped to their arms to transmit coded signals. These proved awkward and were eventually outlawed as an impediment to speedy play.

Everybody goes to Rick’s

Insiders talked about the cheating as a necessary evil and nothing was done about it until, Fukuoka’s Nishinihon Shimbun broke with tradition and reported about the hometown Daiei Hawks’ “spying.”

The Hawks had staff decoding the visitors’ signs using video who would then relay that info to students the team hired to sit in the outfield. The student on duty would relay the sign to the hitter by the way he held the little cheering megaphones that are ubiquitous in the outfield seats at Japanese ball games.

Instead of ignoring what everyone assumed was going on and was more or less business as usual in Japanese baseball, the publication of the story caused NPB to explode into self righteous outrage.

Sound familiar to those of you following the MLB announcements?

Shocked to discover gambling going on

Investigations were launched and though nothing was proven, virtually everyone believed the story, and the Hawks team president was suspended on Jan. 18, 1999. That day, commissioner Hiromori Kawashima ordered six measures including a ban on all transmissions to the bench from outside the field of play.

The following day, the managers of the six Pacific League teams met and declared that in the interest of fair play, they would refrain from acts of spying while prohibiting runners or coaches from transmitting info based on stolen signs. The Central League soon followed suit.

Ten years later, the commissioner was granted the authority to suspend anyone who transmitted stolen signs, whether they were in uniform or not.

Standard operating indignation

The same scenario is replayed in various forms in Japanese society, the biggest one in baseball being NPB’s outrage that the Seibu Lions looked under the carpet where the organization’s dirt had been swept.

The Lions investigated breeches of NPB rules that prohibited cash payments to amateurs. By organizing a thorough investigation, the club sought to clean up baseball, and were punished for their good deeds. Instead of applauding their noble effort, the rest of NPB’s owners dumped on the Lions for having broken the rules.

A racist excuse for cheating among honest Japanese

I’m a fan of Nikkan Sports columnist Nobuyuki Kojima’s work. He writes in detail about historic matters and puts them in context, but his explanation for why Japan’s honest, noble ballplayers steal signs is essentially a racist rant. He blames sign stealing on the bad character of foreign players who lack the talent to make it in the majors and only come to Japan to earn a paycheck who spread their cheating ways among innocent Japanese.

Well-traveled Rhodes

There is a line in James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” that comes to mind whenever the story of Tuffy Rhodes‘ Japanese baseball legacy comes up. In that work, an earnest and skilled but persecuted soldier speaks of his affinity for America’s prewar army, while recognizing that the feeling was not mutual.

“Just because you love something doesn’t mean it has to love you back.”

Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt from James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity.”

That line could easily apply to Rhodes, who had one of the most outstanding careers in Japanese baseball history, but is having a hard time gaining support among voters for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tuffy Rhodes as cautionary tale

In America, most people remember Rhodes for one of two things. It’s either his three home runs on Opening Day in 1994 and a major league career that produced little else, or as a misguided analogy for the level of play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Whenever a player like Masahiro Tanaka or Shohei Ohtani moves toward the majors, some know-it-all is sure to bring up Rhodes’ career as a sort of cautionary tale. After all, how good can a Japanese player be if he comes from a country where a player with a .224 career average in the majors thrived?

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Where Rhodes ranks

Rhodes had 590 career major league at-bats, but those were spread over six seasons. In Japan, Rhodes ranks fifth in career slugging average, 13th in home runs, 19th in walks, 20th in RBIs, 23rd in on-base percentage and 24th in runs scored. Japan plucked Rhodes at exactly the moment he was putting his minor league career into overdrive and helped him raise his game in ways MLB did not.

“I went to Japan with an open mind, like a newborn baby. I’m going to live my life as an American in Japan. I’m going to learn the culture,” he said recently in an interview from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“They said, we’ve got good news and bad news. I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and with the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

Tuffy Rhodes on his reaction to learning he’d been offered a contract to play in Japan

Although easily the most successful imported player in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball, Rhodes’ legacy is complicated. He loved the country and learned to speak the language, but he was also ejected an NPB-record 14 times and got into an ugly incident with Japan’s most popular club, the Yomiuri Giants. As time passes, advocates of his powerful case for admission to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame have decreased.

The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame

When Rhodes debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2015, he was named on 25.6 percent of the ballots, with 75 percent needed for election. He made steady gains the next two years to 36.6 percent before dipping in 2018 and recovering somewhat in 2019. Still, he’s never gotten the support that DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez got this year in his debut (40.4 percent).

Through 2018, 329 players have achieved the 4,000 plate appearances NPB requires to be included in career leader boards for offensive average stats. Of those 329, 258 have been out of the game for more than five years. Of those 39 have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the merit of their playing careers. When you look at where Rhodes ranks in career totals, it’s hard to grasp why anyone would doubt his qualifications.

Major league flash in the pan

In the majors, Rhodes made his name on April 4, 1994, the day he blasted three home runs off Dwight Gooden. He hit five more homers that season and 13 in his career before coming to Japan, where he would hit 464 and become the second player to hit 55 in a season after Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh.

“I made the major leagues at 21,” Rhodes said in a recent telephone interview from his winter home in Phoenix, Ariz. “I found it was easy to get to the major leagues, but the hard thing was to stay. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. I tried to rely on or depend on natural ability, when everyone there had ability that was incredible.”

Baseball had not been Rhodes’ favorite sport. Growing up as the youngest of six kids in a tight-knit, sports-oriented family in Cincinnati, he preferred basketball but played everything.

“My father was a football player and my mother was a softball player. They always had a big influence on us when it came to sports,” Rhodes said. “I played every sport. When I was in Ohio, I played football, basketball, indoor soccer, everything. Every day I was at the Boys Club.

“My love of basketball was so strong, and baseball was secondary. I just played the game.”

But that was enough for the Houston Astros to take him in the third round of the 1986 draft. He played sparingly until Houston let him go in 1993. At that point, Rhodes began to bloom. In Omaha for the Royals and with Iowa for the Cubs, he combined to hit .318 with 30 home runs with plenty of walks and was equally as impressive in his 15 games with the Cubs, where he homered three times in 15 games and walked more than he struck out.

With Glenallen Hill hurt at the start of the 1994 season, Rhodes was in the Opening Day lineup at Wrigley Field, when he etched his name in the history books.

“We had Sammy Sosa in right field making $6 million, and Derrick May in left making about $2 million, and Glen was making three or four million,” Rhodes said. “And I was making about $300,000. When he (Hill) got healthy, he just took his job back. The hard thing was I could not make the adjustment to coming off the bench. A lot of guys did that and became successful in major league baseball. I just wasn’t one of them.”

Ready to commit

Rhodes did adjust, however, in terms of his attitude. He had another solid Triple-A season that year, but was waived in May 1995, when he again failed to succeed off the bench. By the time the Boston Red Sox, claimed him, Rhodes said he was ready to commit. Although he didn’t expect the process would take him to Japan to the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes, he said the decision to go was easy.

At that time, scout Ray Poitevint was with Boston. A former resident of Japan, Poitevint created a cottage industry of shipping borderline major leaguers to Japan, where he had numerous connections. “Ray Poitevint was there, and I think the Red Sox had Japan in mind when they claimed me,” said Rhodes, who played 10 games for the Red Sox in 1995, but was again solid in Triple-A.

“They said, we’ve got good news and bad news. I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and with the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

“My thinking about it is I didn’t give 120 percent in America, the total commitment to baseball. I told myself, when I get to Japan I’m going to do whatever it takes to play as long as I can. I didn’t think it was going to be 13 years.”

“I became a student of the game in Japan as well as just being a baseball player. There are things in Japan, preparation before games, preparing yourself for spring training, I had no other choice but to be successful.”

Tuffy Rhodes on how Japanese regimentation helped turn him around.

He may not have known it, but fewer ideas ring louder in the Japanese baseball psyche than “commitment.” In a country that chews up and spits out talented imports who lack commitment, Rhodes was welcomed once his teammates saw he could do more than talk a good game.

Rhodes had played in Venezuela and Mexico, but living in Japan meant immersion in a world that didn’t always make sense.

Getting used to the unexpected

“The bunt in the first inning, the managers getting on the younger kids hard. I’ve seen one of my managers smack one of the rookie players for missing the bunt sign in Tokyo Dome my first year and I could not believe it,” Rhodes said.

“The spring trainings were totally different. It was work, work, work. And they teach you how to play tired. I wasn’t going to complain about nothing. Was I shocked? Yes. Especially when I had to take a hour of batting practice by myself. My first year, (manager Yosuke) Sasaki kantoku made me take batting practice for a hour by myself. Unbelievable. Luckily the next day was a day off. I didn’t come out of the room. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I didn’t come out of my room the next day. I was done. But it taught me, how to use my hands and relax in situations when you’re tired. It worked out well.”

“At the same time, there was the discipline part. You had no choice not to do it. I’m the kind of guy who needs somebody behind me. I need a personal trainer if I’m going to work out. I need a coach if I’m going to work out. I need a schedule, and I know I’m that type of person, so Japanese baseball was great for me.”

Rhodes absorbed every lesson he could, even when those lessons were taught in unconventional ways.

“I became a student of the game in Japan as well as just being a baseball player,” he said. “There are things in Japan, preparation before games, preparing yourself for spring training, I had no other choice but to be successful.”

Part of the preparation that gets mixed reviews with foreign players are long coach-led meeting where opposing batters and hitters are analyzed and the team’s mistakes criticized. As a youngster in the majors, he’d seen teammates studying individually, and Japan offered a structured way to dive in.

“I watched guys take notes in the major leagues, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson. They would make a note of every pitch in every at-bat, and they would go back and check their books when they faced that pitcher and have a plan,” Rhodes said. “I didn’t think anything about it. But when I came to Japan, you have meetings and you have no choice. I listened. I wanted to hear everything they had to say.”

Learning curves

“They taught me to look for 2-0 curveballs and forkballs, to not always look for a fastball. In America we look for the fastball and react to the breaking balls. They taught me to look for different pitches in different counts. I had one pitcher, he threw 95 miles an hour, but 3-2 he threw me a changeup 95 percent of the time. I knew just because of my books and my notes.”

“A pitcher for the Orix BlueWave, a left-handed pitcher, bases loaded, he threw me three curveballs in a row. I was looking for a 3-0 curveball and I got it and hit a grand slam. You’d never look for a 3-0 curveball in America. Here I was looking for 3-2 forkballs, 2-0 forkballs instead of getting set up for my fastball. They taught me how to play chess instead of checkers. I got smarter, stronger. I started looking for pitches. When you look for pitches and you get those breaking balls, you don’t have to be the strongest guy to hit those.”

Another change was physical. Rhodes began seriously weight training in Japan, and with the additional strength and study became an upgraded version of the player he’d been on track to become in his 1994 and 1995 Triple-A seasons.

“I got older, and I started developing. I started lifting weights,” he said. “I never lifted weights in the States, Oh my goodness, no.”

“Two of the greatest things that ever happened to me in Japan was getting to play every day, and playing on a one-year deal for eight straight years. They were very accommodating each year, one other thing that was very good was that I was on the Kintetsu Buffaloes. I wasn’t on the (Central League’s) Hanshin Tigers, I wasn’t on the Tokyo Giants or the Chunichi Dragons. I was on a team like the Minnesota Twins or the Cincinnati Reds, so the spotlight wasn’t on our team so much.”

“I hit .240 or .250 until I figured out the baseball here. If I had hit .240 with the Hanshin Tigers or Tokyo Giants, I probably would have had a one-year experience in Japan.” Instead of a trip to minor league obscurity, Rhodes played every one of Kintetsu’s 130 games and finished the season hitting .293 with a .363 on-base percentage and 27 home runs. In 1999, Rhodes set a career high in NPB home runs when he hit his 28th on July 18, giving him his first shot at Oh’s jealously guarded single-season record. But he hit just 11 after the all-star break and finished with 40.

In 2001, en route to the Pacific League’s MVP award and the Buffaloes’ first pennant since 1989, Rhodes became the second player to challenge Oh’s record. In 1985, American compatriot Randy Bass got to 54 for the before he was blocked by the Giants, then managed by Oh.

Only in Japan

One paradox of Japan is that in an environment that idolizes team play, clubs will bend over backward to help secure or protect individual accomplishments of their players. This often leads to counterproductive tactics in late-season throw-away games. In the case of Bass, it meant not seeing strikes from Giants pitchers when he had reached 54 home runs.

Rhodes got the same treatment on Sept. 30, against the Daiei Hawks, where Oh was then managing. Six days after he tied Oh’s record with a home run off Daisuke Matsuzaka and four days after the Buffaloes clinched the PL pennant, Rhodes didn’t see anything resembling a strike in his first two plate appearances and got himself out in his remaining two at-bats.

Before the game, Oh had praised Rhodes’ home run chase and encouraged him to try and hit 60. After the game, the skipper denied ordering his pitchers to not throw strikes. That command came from battery coach Yoshihiro Wakana.

“Rhodes is a player who is going to go back to America. I don’t want a player like that to break manager Oh’s record,” Wakana told reporters after the game.

Oh never publicly criticized Wakana, but the coach’s contract was not renewed for 2002.

For years, Rhodes steamed about it, telling people how he had no respect for Oh, whose pitchers were at it again the following year when the Seibu Lions’ Alex Cabrera reached 55. Part of the Rhodes paradox is a common one for expats who invest themselves in Japan – disappointment when their second home fails in some way. Having learned to speak Japanese, Rhodes seemed to take things on the field more personally than most. In 2003, Rhodes took umbrage when Seibu Lions pitcher Hayato Aoki hit his friend and teammate Norihiro Nakamura and charged the mound from first base. He blindsided Aoki, who was diagnosed with whiplash. Rhodes’ explanation? Aoki failed to follow Japan’s unwritten rule that requires pitchers to tip their cap after hitting batters.

Japan’s unwritten rule

“He hit Nori. I popped him good,” Rhodes said. “I got suspended one game. He didn’t tip his cap. He would not tip his cap. That set me off, because you’re supposed to tip your cap and show respect, unless you did it on purpose. And Nori is my buddy.”

After eight seasons as a proud resident of Osaka, Rhodes left the Buffaloes after the 2003 season and moved to Tokyo to play for the Yomiuri Giants, who were assembling a huge cast of sluggers after a disappointing third-place finish.

“I was battling with Kintetsu. The Giants had offered me a contract. I didn’t ask Kintetsu to match the contract, just match the years,” Rhodes said. “It was the first time I was going to get a two-year deal, and that’s all I wanted Kintetsu to do. They had never given a foreigner a two-year-deal, so I went with the Giants.

“My teammates were pushing, saying it’s time after about my fifth season. Norihiro Nakamura, he was one, after he got a two-year deal. After that year I saw the reason why. I would have finally got a two-year deal from them. Instead I went to the Giants and it was too late. I loved being in Osaka. I was very comfortable where I was.”

2004: Merger and labor strife

The reason turned out to be that the Buffaloes’ parent company, the Kintetsu Railway, went into the 2004 season intent on selling their baseball club. On June 13, news broke that Kintetsu had entered into talks to merge with the PL rival Orix BlueWave. The move precipitated a labor crisis when owners rejected players’ demands to be consulted. This resulted in NPB’s first and so-far only players strike.

Granted, it wasn’t much of a strike. The players caused cancelations of Saturday and Sunday games on Sept. 18 and 19, a move that met with massive approval from the fans, who gave the head of the players’ union, Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, standing ovations everywhere his team played. But things were settled when owners promised to expedite the creation of a PL expansion franchise to replace Kintetsu and approved interleague play for 2005.

Hard times with the Giants

Although Rhodes told reporters he wanted to finish his career with the Giants, it was not the happiest of marriages. Early in 2005, Rhodes got into a shouting match with coach Sumio Hirota, who accused him of losing a game by failing to chase a ball hit into the gap.

Rhodes was furious. He blasted the Giants to reporters, saying everything was blamed on him despite the team being truly awful. It wasn’t just Rhodes, though. The star-studded club quickly came unhinged under second-year skipper Tsuneo Horiuchi, who made snarky comments about players to reporters and feuded with struggling-but-popular veteran Kazuhiro Kiyohara. As the season wound down, Horiuchi was booed by Giants fans.

Rhodes wasn’t around for that bitter end, though. He hurt his rotator cuff in August and returned to America for surgery and was released after the season. After failing to catch on with the Cincinnati Reds in the spring of 2006, Rhodes returned to Osaka in 2007 to play for the Orix Buffaloes – the team that resulted from the Orix-Kintetsu merger.

Rhodes returns to Osaka

Although he had lost some of his speed and batting average, Rhodes was still a valuable run producer, leading the club in walks and all three Triple Crown stats. Rhodes’ status as an elder statesmen among the foreign players in NPB, didn’t stop opponents and umpires from winding him up. And his knowledge of Japanese certainly helped them push his buttons.

In his most famous ejection, Rhodes turned around in the batter’s box and landed a sumo-like two-handed shove to the mask of Lotte Marines catcher Tomoya Satozaki. Rhodes said it was set up after the Marines had hit teammate Greg LaRocca, who in 2007 set an NPB single-season record by getting hit by pitches 28 times.

“Three game series,” Rhodes said. “They hit LaRocca the first two days. LaRocca hit a groundball to first base. (Pitcher Naoyuki) Shimizu is covering first base. LaRocca kind of gave him a cheap shot. I don’t know if he stepped on him, kind of like an elbow to the back, because they collided and…all heck breaks loose. Who’s batting next? Me. First pitch, inside. Shimizu’s a pretty damn good pitcher. He’s got some pretty good stuff.”

“So I looked back at Satozaki and said to him in Japanese, ‘Remember, I’m not LaRocca.’ He’s down there. I kicked my dirt. I did not kick dirt on him. Then he stands up and says in Japanese, ‘Rhodes, I’m not scared of you.’ I thought, ‘that’s it,’ and I popped him right in the mouth. He’s lucky the umpire got hold of me from behind because I had him on the ground and I was going to punch him.”

Rhodes played in a career-low 84 games in 2009, but still reached base at a .402 clip and slugged .583. Yet, when Orix turned to its fifth manager in six seasons since the merger, Rhodes was not asked back. He waited for a call that never came. It came as a surprise to nearly everyone that when the 2010 roster signing deadline came on July 31, Rhodes’ name was nowhere to be seen.

Learning to coach and relax

With no return ticket, Rhodes stayed at home in Houston, where he coached his son TJ’s basketball team with some success, applying the studious ways he’d approached baseball in Japan to coaching basketball.

“I started out as an assistant coach and the coach stepped down and everyone voted for me to be the next coach,” Rhodes said. “The system was already in order. I just added stuff on. I googled stuff I didn’t know, even though I loved basketball and thought I knew everything about basketball. I did my research.”

His chance to return to Japan for a third time came in 2015 when a former teammate contacted him about being a player coach for the Toyama Thunderbirds in the independent Baseball Challenge League. Rhodes didn’t hit for power, but he did produce, but felt he could no longer play. The team wanted him to come back for 2016, but he had just purchased his winter home in Scottsdale.

“That didn’t work out because they were expecting me to play and I couldn’t play. I couldn’t give them that much,” he said. “They tried to (bring me back), but I had just bought the house out here. I really tried. But by the time I got back to them, they were going to go a different route. I regret I didn’t push a little harder, a little faster.”

And now?

“I’m the true definition of retired,” said Rhodes, whose son is now wrapping up his college studies in Cincinnati. “I’m enjoying life.”

Rhodes said he’d jump at the chance to return to Japan to coach or manage, but wasn’t holding his breath. It is very likely he’ll return at some point – to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, when enough voters manage to get their priorities straight and actually weigh his accomplishments.

“I try not to worry about things like that that I don’t have control over. I would love to be in the Hall of Fame there. It would be a great honor. But you know, there are only two or three things in my life that outweigh the joy, the great time and the learning experience and the people I met in Japan. I can’t replace that.”

Former big leaguer Matsui walks into sunset

Kazuo Matsui’s pro baseball odyssey has finally come to an end.

TOKYO – Even at age 42, the end came more quickly than Kazuo Matsui imagined.
Matsui’s 25-year pro career ground to a halt last month at MetLife Dome outside Tokyo, where the Seibu Lions were eliminated from Japan’s postseason in the final stage of the Pacific League’s Climax Series. A shortstop for most of his career, Matsui returned this year to Seibu for the first time since 2003 as an outfielder and did not see any action during the series.

“Last year, people around me said that considering my age and my numbers, it would be normal to think about retiring, but I’d never even considered it,” Matsui said this summer about why he turned down a coaching job with the Rakuten Eagles, for one last chance to play.

“In my mind, I was still an athlete.”
Matsui, who spent seven years in the big leagues with the Mets, Rockies and Astros, returned to Japan in 2011 with Rakuten. But by 2016 he’d become a utility man. But late this season, in his second-straight year of scant playing time, Matsui bowed to the inevitable.

Matsui leaves the field as a player for the last time on Oct. 21, 2018.

On Oct. 21, before he walked from the field for the last time as a player, Matsui trotted to left field, bowed and bid farewell to the team’s fans. Then as he retraced his steps toward the field exit behind home plate, the four-time Golden Glove winner stopped at the shortstop’s position. Matsui kneeled and touched his hand to the turf he’d patrolled for 8-1/2 years before leaving for America as a free agent in 2004.

Fifteen years ago, Matsui was 28 and coming off two 30-plus home run seasons. He had turned a career-high 96 double plays in 2003. A speedy, switch-hitter, Matsui had been the PL’s MVP at the age of 21. From 22 to 26, he had arguably been Japan’s best player in a discussion that included PL rival Ichiro Suzuki and Central League slugger Hideki Matsui.

“He had a track record in Japan and I saw him first-hand against major league pitching,” Howe said. “He had a tremendous series. That’s what got the Mets so interested in him. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on the field.”

But unlike his outfield compatriots, Japan’s first major league infielder’s overseas odyssey was less an adventure and more a lesson in survival. Lower back trouble — that had plagued him as a star pitcher in his final year of high school — resurfaced during his first season with the Mets.

“He had some back issues,” then-Mets manager Art Howe said by phone recently from his home in Houston. “That affected his play. He had all the tools. He was quick. He had an accurate throwing arm. Hit from both sides of the plate.”

Howe had first seen Matsui in 2002, when as Athletics skipper he managed a team of major league all-stars in a postseason tour against an all-star team from Japan’s pro leagues. Matsui, who’d also played in a similar series in 1998, was one of the series’ outstanding players.

A year after a sparkling 2002 postseason series against major leaguers, Matsui was a Met.

“He had a track record in Japan and I saw him first-hand against major league pitching,” Howe said. “He had a tremendous series. That’s what got the Mets so interested in him. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on the field.”

The postseason games against MLB players proved an eye-opener for Matsui as well.

“The Japan-MLB series was one of the reasons I wanted to play in America,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Whoa. What could these guys do over the course of a whole season.’ That really piqued my interest, and I knew if I had the chance I wanted to take it.”

In 1998, however, the belief remained strong that only Japanese pitchers could cut it in the majors. Vinny Castilla of the Rockies, a member of the 1998 tour, was quoted by Japan’s Hochi Shimbun as saying it would be difficult for Ichiro – then a three-time MVP and a five-time batting champion — to hit in the majors.

After Ichiro and Hideki Matsui disproved such notions, the Mets took a chance that Kazuo Matsui could thrive in a major league infield.

“I became a free agent at the age of 28, and turned 29 right after my first season in the majors. Baseball careers are so short, and I felt that this was my last chance to play in America.”

“A certain amount of information is needed (about the way they play) but there is such a thing as too much information,” he said. “Japanese players want a lot of information, but after all, we’ve been playing ball in Japan, and there’s really no need for us to change the way we play.”

Although durable in homeland, Matsui became injury-prone in America, starting in spring training, where the different tempo can take a toll on Japanese imports. Spring training in Japan means all-day workouts from Feb. 1 with frequent days off for rest and recovery. This segues into daily practices and exhibitions from the end of February until Opening Day.

Matsui said that while new players understand they can’t work as much each day as they are used to and that stresses players out.

“You are pushed in training here (in Japan) quite a lot, but there are days off,” Matsui said. “But with no days off in America, you have to do a really good job of adjusting your own workload. But when you do that and train less, it’s easy to become anxious that you’re not doing enough work, and you find yourself overcompensating by doing more and more and more.”

Matsui doesn’t say whether or not over-training contributed to his own fitness issues, but he said players coming to the States can easily get lost if they try too hard to adjust to perceived differences in the style of play and expectations.

“A certain amount of information is needed (about the way they play) but there is such a thing as too much information,” he said. “Japanese players want a lot of information, but after all, we’ve been playing ball in Japan, and there’s really no need for us to change the way we play.”

“First of all you go to America, experience that. Then you play preseason games and get that experience. What’s really important is getting a feel for that game from those first impressions and then asking yourself what you need to do next. But if you go and start telling yourself, ‘I need to do it this way or do it that way,’ you’re going to lose your way.'”

Did that happen to him?

“It happens to some players,” he said.

“When people ask me about my time over there, I think about the difficulties, the sadness, frustrations you can’t experience here,” he said. “But I also remember the sensations, the sunshine in the morning and things like the smell of the grass. The first thing I’d do when I’d get to the field was breath that in, the smell of the grass, and it stayed with me as I played.”

A finger injury kept Matsui from fielding in preseason games until the middle of March, and he injured his right wrist a week before Opening Day. But he answered the bell, going 3-for-3 with two doubles, two walks, and a homer in his first big league at-bat. It was, however, an offensive performance he wouldn’t match until a five-RBI day in a demolition of the Yankees on July 2.

Without the lively balls employed by PL teams in his final years in Japan, and learning to deal with take-out slides at second base for the first time in his career, Matsui was faced with a mountain of adjustments.

“The toughest change for me on the field was the speed of both the base runners and batted balls,” he said. “First of all, because I went as a fielder, it was essential to focus on defense. That meant learning to anticipate where different pitches would be hit. As for the speed of the runners, it’s bewildering to people who are new to that.”

Matsui in his prime as the
Seibu Lions shortstop.

“Of course, I slid hard, too. So I was conscious of it. But even still, the speed of those slides (coming in to you) is much faster than you imagine. It’s something you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve experienced it.”

Howe, whom Matsui named as one of the people who had the biggest impacts on his career, understood Matsui’s plight.

“The expectations were out of sight when he came to New York,” Howe said. “If you don’t meet expectations in New York, you’re going to have trouble with the fan base and the writers. It’s a tough place…”

“He’s coming from a different culture with a different language to the biggest city in the States, with all kinds of pressure from the fan base there. It had to be difficult for anybody. But he was always smiling. He always had a good attitude. He never seemed to let anything get him down. I thought the world of Kaz and wanted to do everything I could to help him succeed.”

Despite the injuries frustrations and disappointments – or perhaps because of them, Matsui believes that in the big picture, his seven years in the States taught him things he might not have learned in Japan.

“I don’t even have any regrets about the first years,” he said. “My lower back trouble was an old thing. And it’s there that I really learned how critical the self-management side was. The season is so much longer, the travel harder. How do you deal with that? Those were important lessons for me.”

Immersed in an ethos in which orders are followed and questions not asked, Japanese athletes have earned a reputation for being extremely coachable. For Matsui, playing abroad meant experiencing game he learned as a child through a different paradigm. In the majors, he felt that responsibility to one’s craft was as much about initiative and problem solving as the exhaustive obedience expected in Japan.

“I learned to plan out my own practices, and manage my own conditioning. Everything followed from that. I did pretty much everything the way I wanted,” he said. “After I had an idea about some way to practice, I would take it to a coach, explain what I was thinking and bounce it off him.”

“That’s how I improved my physical condition and other aspects of my game. I saw in a new light how diligent you have to be. I’ve been doing it that way since.”

“When people ask me about my time over there, I think about the difficulties, the sadness, frustrations you can’t experience here,” he said. “But I also remember the sensations, the sunshine in the morning and things like the smell of the grass. The first thing I’d do when I’d get to the field was breath that in, the smell of the grass, and it stayed with me as I played.”