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Spotlight will be shining on Matsui03/26/2004 8:00 AM ET
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
TAMPA -- Triumphant homecomings have become all too common in professional sports. With players jumping from team to team with regularity, each season seems to have a couple of dates circled when a superstar makes his return to the city that helped make him into the star that he is.
Michael Jordan returned to Chicago, while Wayne Gretzky made his way back to Edmonton. Alex Rodriguez said hello once again to Seattle, and Emmitt Smith visited Dallas one last time.
While each of these megastars has experienced emotional returns to his original stomping grounds, they pale in comparison to what Hideki Matsui will face this week when he returns to Japan to play in front of his native country for the first time since he signed with the New York Yankees.
"I'm really looking forward to it, other than the jet-lag," Matsui said through his interpreter. "To play in Japan after a long time should be fun."
"It's going to be bigger than anything we've ever seen," said Derek Jeter. "Here, there are always players who are big with teams or cities, but he's got a whole country following him."
Matsui, who was not only the most popular athlete in Japan, but the most popular person in the nation, will create a national stir that hasn't been seen since ... well, since he left for the United States in February 2003.
"I can't even imagine," said Tony Clark. "It's one thing to be a hometown hero, but it's got to be something completely different to be the hero of an entire country. It must be exciting, but I can't even fathom the response he's going to get."
"It's going to be the World Series for him, plus a little," said Mike Mussina, who will start the regular-season opener for the Yankees. "We don't have anything comparable. It will be interesting to see what he has to deal with and how he handles it."
Matsui is not the first Japanese baseball star to return home after thriving in the Majors. Ichiro Suzuki captured the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards before returning for the 2002 All-Star Series, where he hit .355 in seven games with the MLB All-Stars.
That series was also Matsui's farewell to Japan, as he left for the Majors just two months later. Ichiro believes the trip to Tokyo will be an exciting yet emotional one for Matsui.
"I think people there are going to go crazy," Ichiro said. "He is very big in Japan and especially big in Tokyo because he played for the Giants. I think it will be exciting for him, but also like a zoo."
Mets shortstop Kazuo Matsui -- no relation -- is entering his first season in the Majors, and although he has enough to worry about as he approaches the end of Spring Training, he plans to keep an eye on the events going on in his native land.
"Hideki going over there will be huge. It's something the fans are looking forward to a lot," Kazuo Matsui said. "I think this will be an exciting time for the people in Japan. I would like to follow it and see what the outcome is. I will do the best I can but we have our own games I have to concentrate on."
When Hideki Matsui takes the field at the Tokyo Dome -- his former baseball home -- he will be preparing to take on his former Yomiuri Giants teammates for the first time ever. The exhibition game may actually be more emotional for the 29-year-old than the regular-season games will be, as he steps on the familiar turf in an unfamiliar uniform.
"I'm not nervous, I'm excited," Matsui said. "I don't know what to expect at the stadium as far as the fans are concerned, but I'm looking forward to playing against my former teammates from the Giants."
"Hopefully the two exhibition games will help clear the butterflies and the excitement out," said manager Joe Torre, "get him to concentrate on the regular season games."
Although the modest Matsui doesn't want to take it for granted, he knows that he will receive a thunderous ovation from his adoring fans. During the 2002 All-Star Series, the fans went crazy every time Matsui stepped in the batter's box, a scene that has stuck with Jason Giambi.
"He got standing ovations every day. It was pretty incredible," Giambi said. "He pressed during that series, but I don't think he'll have any trouble this time. He wanted to hit a home run so badly, because he felt he owed them that for being such great fans. He wanted to give him something in return."
Listening to Matsui speak of this trip, it sounds like he wants to give the Japanese fans a show this turn around as well.
"It will be a pleasure to have that kind of ovation," Matsui said. "I hope I can play as well as they expect me to."
Gary Sheffield has been to Japan twice, playing in the 1996 and 2000 All-Star Series. He remembers the crowd going wild for Matsui when he was there, but he expects this week's reception will make the old days look like a high school pep rally.
"It's going to be 10 times more of a reception than he got when he was there," Sheffield said. "When we went, Hideo Nomo was on the tour with us, and they went crazy for him. The first pitch he threw, the whole stadium was like one big flashbulb."
Although Matsui has handled the media throng that ensconces him daily in New York, what he will face in Tokyo is expected to exceed it ten-fold.
"I really think it's going to be tough for him," Jorge Posada said. "He's going to be playing against guys that he played with before. Hopefully he'll have a good time out there, but it's going to be tough. I'm sure the media is going to want a piece of him every time he goes out."
"I can't even imagine the focus that will be on him," said Paul Quantrill. "We think it's big here with his media entourage, but I have a feeling that's nothing compared to what we'll see over there."
Matsui will have roughly 20 to 30 friends and family members in the crowd for each of the four games he will play at the Tokyo Dome. Despite the white-hot spotlight that will be focused on him during the entire trip, the chronically cool Matsui insists that he won't feel any more pressure than he does every day.
"I don't think I'm going to change the way I prepare for games," Matsui said. "Regardless of what the environment is, I can only control what I can control."
Matsui said that he has been looking forward to the trip ever since it was officially announced in mid-December. Having fine-tuned his game during the spring, Matsui is ready to show the folks back home how good his new team can be in 2004.
"To open the season in Japan is something I never imagined," Matsui said. "I'm happy to go back as a member of the New York Yankees. I'm really looking forward to it."
"I'm sure it's going to be a very proud moment for him," Torre said. "This is a chance for him to go back and thank them for supporting him the way they have. It should be exciting for him."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.