05/05/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Seven thousand miles might seem a long way to go to watch a baseball game, but Hideki Matsui was" a man with a mission. Fascinated since childhood by the New York Yankees, particularly Babe Ruth, the Japanese superstar made a pilgrimage to the U.S. in October of 1999. to catch, the Yankees in the playoffs and to visit the baseball Hall of Fame. But to the pal accompanying him, sportswriter Isao Hirooka, it soon became apparent the excursion to Cooperstown was almost an afterthought. Once inside the Bronx Bombers' home, Matsui "pointed out in the field and said Babe Ruth stood right over there," recalls Hirooka. "Later he said that he wished he could play at Yankee Stadium. After we got home, he told me he couldn't forget about that game he saw."
These days it's Yankee fans who can't forget Matsui, the team's newest master blaster. Since signing his $21 million, three-year contract, the southpaw slugger has offered ample examples of the power that earned him the nickname Godzilla back in high school, including a towering grand slam that won the Yanks' home opener April 8. Batting .275 with 20 RBIs as of press time, the 28-year-old outfielder, says teammate Jason Giambi, is "not only a great power hitter, but he's a great hitter."
And Matsui seems to be a real hit in the clubhouse with a humility and good humor that belie his iconic status in Japan, where, Giambi observes, "he's like Michael Jordan." On the first day of spring training, Matsui arrived in the locker room with his interpreter and promptly went to introduce himself, individually, to everyone. He also endeared himself early on to manager Joe Torre, whom he presented with a special tea set. "He has a calm about him," says Torre. "There's always a camera trained on him, and he handles that with a great deal of ease." The way Matsui sees it, "I can't really control the pressure that comes from the outside." What he can, and does, focus on is trying "to make sure that I do not apply pressure on myself, and make sure I concentrate on the game."
Credit some of Matsui's uncanny composure to his father, Masao, 62, a shinpu (reverend teacher) for a Shinto-based religion in the family's hometown of Neagari, 200 miles northwest of Tokyo. Even as a very small boy, Masao says, his younger son could hit the ball farther and play better than his brother Toshiki, four years older. Says Masao: "That ball really flew."
Drafted directly out of high school by the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most storied franchise, Matsui quickly-demonstrated that his Godzilla nickname was well deserved. During his decade as a player he would belt 332 homers (including 50 last year, when he led the league) and bat for an average of .304. But something in Matsui craved a challenge fiercer than the Seibu Lions. He wanted to test himself against the likes of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. "Whenever there was an opportunity to see a Yankees game broadcast in Japan, Hideki would watch," his father remembers. "I guess he has always loved America."
So while Matsui may occasionally miss his personal chiropractor, or some of his favorite Japanese treats—like his pregame snack of onigiri (rice balls)—his family says he's not at all homesick. "If anything, he seems happier now that he is living in America," says his father, even if the bachelor has yet to find the time to furnish and move into his new apartment. "I haven't had a chance," says Matsui, "to enjoy New York yet." Whether he'll be discovering the town on his own, or with some female company, is a matter on which he is rather coy. "I ask him once in a while about that," says his father, "but he just laughs."
As part of the transition process, teammates are helping Matsui improve his still-modest English skills. "The players are teaching him some unsavory comments and phrases, but he's having fun with it," says manager Torre. "Between Clemens and Jeter, they'll have him Americanized in a short period of time." But there is at least one key English phrase Matsui already knows just fine. Asked what the Japanese word for "home run" is, he smiles and says, "Home run." The Babe couldn't have said it better.
Tom Duffy in New York City, Nancy Matsumoto in Toronto and Ana Figueroa in Anaheim