ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. Inside a jammed auxiliaryclubhouse, some 50 Japanese media members and a large local press contingentgathered Tuesday morning for the official introduction of the highest-profileminor leaguer in Tampa Bay Rays history.
Hello, Hideki Matsui.
The iconic Japanese slugger and longtime fixture for the New York Yankees tookhis seat on a platform beside a translator, fielding questions about the newturn in his respected baseball career one that has led him, after two weeksof speculation, into the Tampa Bay fold.
For the 2009 World Series MVP with the Yankees, the road to the Rays will leadthrough the farm system in the short term. Matsui agreed to a minor league dealthat will begin with the Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs and, when he and theclub feel hes ready, jump to Triple-A Durham.
Thats just fine with Matsui, who says he intends to travel with the minor leagueteams 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 unfortunatedevelopment for the Rays with team leader Evan Longoria. The star third baseman and offensive force suffered ahamstring-knee injury Monday night while attempting to steal second baseagainst the Mariners. With Longoria out for an extended amount of time, itcould 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 .285batting average with 173 home runs, 753 RBI and 248 doubles in 1,202 majorleague games over nine seasons. He did all that after hitting .304 with 332home runs, 889 RBI and 245 doubles in 1,268 games in Japan.
I think its something were going to monitor very closely, executive vicepresident of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. With someone ofHidekis experience and caliber, well rely a lot on him as well him tellingus when he feels comfortable in the batters box as he gets going.I dont think theres any way to simulate facing livepitching. So working toward that and getting as many at-bats you see it everyspring. Guys near the end of spring feel like theyre always in a rush to getready for the season, but everyone operates differently.
Matsui, who will turn 38 in June, stressed that he feels like hes in excellentphysical shape and is excited about the opportunity to play baseball again. Hehit .255 for Oakland last season with 12 homers, batting .295 in the secondhalf of the season. But hes been one of a handful of established designatedhitters to remain unsigned until now.
"Fortunately, I've been given an opportunity to wear a major leagueuniform again, so I'm just very thankful for the Rays, Matsui said. My focusis 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, hisdecision to sign with Tampa Bay was based in a simple fact: The club showedmore interest in his services than any other team.
"The Rays have been a very strong team, especially over the last severalyears, he said. They've been to the playoffs as well. My impression is thisis an excellent team. As far as my decision is concerned, really the Rays havebeen the team that really seriously made an offer, and I think that was themain 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 Hidekisrepresentatives, Friedman said. Weve always had a tremendous amount ofrespect 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 beensomeone 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 Hidekiwas still going through the process, near the end of spring training we spokeagain. And we agreed to stay in touch at that point. It was something for usthat adding to not only the depth but when you have a chance to add achampionship-caliber player to your organization, its something that weregoing to be aggressive to do.
Adding yet another left-hander to the crew of hitters they already have DHsLuke Scott and Brandon Allen, along with such power bats as Carlos Pena andMatt 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-handedhitters, Friedman said. Its something were very comfortable with. You faceright-handed pitching 70 (to) 75 percent of the time. But beyond that, Hidekisalso very good against left-handed pitching. So the fact that he hitsleft-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 pastfew months.
"I was really focused on just staying in shape and getting ready reallynothing else on my mind, he said. As far as the details of what kind ofpractice 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 lifeexplained that he has no problem with accepting it.
"I think that really resembles where I'm at as far as myself as a baseballplayer, Matsui said.
For now, Matsui will be the most famous member of the Stone Crabs, and soon theDurham Bulls. He said his contract contains no out clauses if the Rays dontpromote him quickly enough or decide they dont need him.
He embraces his new, if unfamiliar, role in the game, but he hopes to becontributing in a meaningful way soon.
As far as the expectations from the Rays, he said, it's to hopefully jointhe team and be some kind of force for the team at the major leaguelevel."
In any language, thats music to the Rays ears.