07/14/2003 6:29 PM ET
Matsui savors All-Star experience
CHICAGO -- When Hideki Matsui walked out of the Great American Ballpark on June 4 following a loss to the Cincinnati Reds, the All-Star Game was probably the furthest thing from his mind.
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
Matsui was batting .250 with three home runs and 34 RBIs in 58 games, and many people questioned whether the three-time Central League All-Star would be able to make the necessary adjustments to succeed in the Major Leagues.
Fast forward six weeks.
Matsui is sitting in a ballroom at the Westin hotel in Chicago, dressed in a shirt and tie, talking to the press at All-Star Media Day. With a .299 average, nine home runs and 66 RBIs, Matsui helped lead the Yankees to a strong first-half finish, as New York went to the break with a two-game lead on the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. In the process, the Japanese import finished second in AL outfield voting, earning a starting spot in center field next to his fellow countryman, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki.
"A few years ago, we couldn't have imagined Japanese players in the Major League All-Star Game," Matsui said through his interpreter. "But we're playing. It's great. The fans in Japan are very proud of how we have performed here."
So are Matsui's teammates. Jason Giambi, a fellow AL All-Star, raved about Matsui's game since he first saw him in Japan a couple of years ago. This winter, after recruiting Matsui during November's All-Star Series in Japan, Giambi said that the addition of Matsui would bolster New York's already-potent lineup. Even during Matsui's early-season struggles, Giambi was confident that his teammate would bounce back and put up solid numbers.
"Having great months and down months are part of the big leagues," Giambi said. "It was a question of how long it would take him, and him not getting down on himself when he struggled. Once he figured out how guys were throwing to him, he took off."
Matsui was as surprised as anybody to earn the All-Star start, especially considering his performance over the first two months of the season.
"My numbers weren't good," Matsui said. "My batting average and RBIs were low and I wasn't hitting home runs. I never thought I'd be chosen in the All-Star Game, but my numbers got better. I'm very happy to be here."
"He's been under a lot of pressure, including his own, but he never gave in. He kept working and getting better," said Jorge Posada. "It's been a lot of fun to see him rebound. When guys give up in the middle of May, I never understand it. There's a lot of season left, and he's the perfect example of numbers getting better."
Matsui, who entertains dozens of reporters' requests on a daily basis throughout the season, was hardly intimidated by the media turnout in Chicago. He spent Sunday night at the House of Blues watching teammate Bernie Williams play the first concert of his musical career, and said that he's looking forward to seeing Giambi try to defend his title in Monday night's Home Run Derby.
"It's my first experience here," Matsui said. "Having Soriano, Giambi and Posada here has made it a little easier."
Oakland's Mark Mulder, who faced Matsui early in the season, said he was impressed with what he has seen of Matsui on TV, and believes that he will be a much different player the next time he faces him from the first time.
"Watching him play, he's definitely picked it up," Mulder said. "We played him early in the season, which was tough for him. He was facing a bunch of guys he'd never seen, but he's made some adjustments and he's doing a lot better. I'm sure he'll have a different approach."
Woody Williams, who faced Matsui at the beginning of his hot streak in June, was impressed with Matsui's perseverance.
"He made a quick adjustment," Williams said. "He struggled early on and once he got a little comfortable, he was tearing the cover off the ball. He can wear a pitcher down. I think he's going to have a big second half."
Having seen most teams at least once, Matsui will indeed have a better idea of what he's doing over the next two-and-a-half months. Having figured out how to identify the two-seam fastball, Matsui is looking forward to contributing and helping his team reach the postseason.
"I'm still adjusting to American baseball," Matsui said. "Over here, they pitch with a lot of two-seamers, which I didn't see much in Japan. That was the biggest thing I had to figure out, and I'm still getting better. I don't put expectations on myself, I just try to do my best. I'll look at it at the end of the season and reflect on it."
With an All-Star start under his belt in his rookie season, where will Matsui go from here? Hopefully, he says, back at the Midsummer Classic next season and the one after that.
"It's going to be a good year for me," Matsui said. "But I'd like to challenge myself in the next two years to get back to the All-Star Game."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.