ST. PETERSBURG Inside a jammed auxiliary clubhouse, some 50 Japanese media members and a large local press contingent gathered Tuesday morning for the official introduction of the highest-profile minor leaguer in Tampa Bay Rays history.
Hello, Hideki Matsui.
The iconic Japanese slugger and longtime fixture for the New York Yankees took his seat on a platform beside a translator, fielding questions about the new turn in his respected baseball career one that has led him, after two weeks of speculation, into the Tampa Bay fold.
For the 2009 World Series MVP with the Yankees, the road to the Rays will lead through the farm system in the short term. Matsui agreed to a minor-league deal that will begin with the Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs and, when he and the club feel hes ready, jump to Triple-A Durham.
And thats just fine with Matsui, who says he intends to travel with the minor teams and live the life of a prospect with no preferred treatment.
No, nothing special, he said. Im going to be a minor leaguer.
But dont expect that stint to last too long, especially given the unfortunate development for the Rays with team leader Evan Longoria.
The star third baseman and offensive force suffered a hamstring-knee injury Monday night while attempting to steal second base against the Mariners. Following the Matsui press conference, executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters that Longoria will be evaluated later Tuesday before the team knows the more about the severity of injury and what steps it will take.
If Longoria is out for an extended amount of time, it could make Matsuis presence at the plate a far more pressing matter. But for now, theres no set timetable for the man who owns a career .285 batting average with 173 home runs, 753 RBI and 248 doubles in 1,202 major league games played nine seasons. He amassed those impressive numbers after hitting .304 with 332 home runs, 889 RBI and 245 doubles in 1,268 games in Japan.
I think its something were going to monitor very closely, Friedman said. With someone of Hidekis experience and caliber, well rely a lot on him as well him telling us when he feels comfortable in the batters box as he gets going. I dont think theres any way to simulate facing live pitching. So working toward that and getting as many at-bats you see it every spring. Guys near the end of spring feel like theyre always in a rush to get ready for the season, but everyone operates differently.
Matsui, who will turn 38 in June, stressed that he feels like hes in excellent physical shape and is excited about the opportunity to play baseball again. He hit .255 for Oakland last season with 12 homers, batting .295 in the second half of the season. But hes been one of a handful of established designated hitters to remain unsigned until now.
"Fortunately, I've been given an opportunity to wear a major league uniform again, so I'm just very thankful for the Rays, he said. My focus is just to work and hopefully get up to the majors as soon as possible."
His impression of his new team is highly favorable. But in the end, his decision to sign with Tampa Bay was based in a simple fact: The club showed more interest in his services than any other team.
"The Rays have been a very strong team, especially over the last several years, he said. They've been to the playoffs as well. My impression is this is an excellent team. As far as my decision is concerned, really the Rays have been the team that really seriously made an offer, and I think that was the main decision point for me."
Friedman acknowledged that the Rays have had interest in Matsui for a while.
First of all, for the last couple of offseasons, weve talked to Hidekis representatives, he said. Weve always had a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he does in the batters box, the type of person he is, the type of teammate, the success that hes enjoyed. So hes always been someone whos been on our radar.
More conversations took place this past offseason, but nothing materialized.
"As is often the case, things kind of go in different directions, Friedman said. So when the dust settled and we had our roster set, and Hideki was still going through the process, near the end of spring training we spoke again. And we agreed to stay in touch at that point. It was something for us that adding to not only the depth but when you have a chance to add a championship-caliber player to your organization, its something that were going to be aggressive to do.
Adding yet another left-hander to the crew of hitters they already have DHs Luke Scott and Brandon Allen, along with such power bats as Carlos Pena and Matt Joyce was never a concern to Friedman or anyone in the organization.
If you look back at our rosters over the years, weve had a lot of left-handed hitters, he said. Its something were very comfortable with. You face right-handed pitching 70-75 percent of the time. But beyond that, Hidekis also very good against left-handed pitching. So the fact that he hits left-handed isnt as important in that he handles both sides very well.
While he waited for an offer to his liking, Matsui kept in shape over the past few months.
"I was really focused on just staying in shape and getting ready really nothing else on my mind, he said. As far as the details of what kind of practice I was doing, it was pretty much your regular, basic baseball training, nothing in particular."
As for his minor league contract, the player who in Japan is larger than life explained that he has no problem with accepting it.
"I think that really resembles where I'm at as far as myself as a baseball player, he said.
For now, Matsui will be the most famous member of the Stone Crabs, and soon the Durham Bulls. And he said his contract contains no out clauses if the Rays dont promote him quickly enough or decide they dont need him.
He embraces his new, if unfamiliar, role in the game, but he hopes to be contributing in a meaningful way soon.
As far as the expectations from the Rays, he said, it's to hopefully join the team and be some kind of force for the team at the major league level."
In any language, thats music to the Rays ears.