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Matsui defends decision to skip Classic

Yankees slugger focused on preparing for upcoming season

Hideki Matsui, shown at 2005 Spring Training, said it wasn't easy to tell Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh that he wasn't playing in the WBC. (Steve Nesius/AP)

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Hideki Matsui defended his decision about choosing not to play in the World Baseball Classic after he worked out for the first time at the Yankees' Spring Training complex on Monday.

Matsui, unlike teammates Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon, will not play in the WBC, choosing instead to stay at camp -- thus agreeing with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who has voiced his displeasure about the tournament.

Both Jeter and Damon cited fan enthusiasm and Major League Baseball's partnership with the Players Association as reasons to play, while Steinbrenner has said he doesn't want to risk an injury to any of his players.

"Certainly an event like the World Baseball Classic is very important for baseball and for the fans," said Matsui.

"At the same time, being a member of the Yankees, the real part of professional baseball is Major League Baseball and trying to win a championship. This time of the year is a very important time to prepare for the season and that can decide how the season is going to go. It was a very difficult decision for me, but I have no regrets with my decision."

Matsui said that both fans and members of the large contingent of Japanese media that follow him have expressed their displeasure with his decision not to play. Matsui is very popular in Japan and has not received much criticism during his playing career.

"I think either way I would have been criticized," Matsui said. "Had I been part of the tournament, I may have been criticized and vice versa. It's not that I'm not used to being criticized, but certainly there's nothing you can really do about that."

The Japanese team opens the WBC in Tokyo on March 3.

"Knowing what he goes through, physically, during the course of the year, it didn't disappoint me that he didn't play," manager Joe Torre said. "Plus the travel aspect, that's got to be difficult."

Matsui's appearance at camp came a day earlier than is required by the team. Position players report to camp for physicals on Tuesday and the first team workout is scheduled for Wednesday.

"I think playing 100 percent to your ability [at the WBC] would be the most difficult thing," Matsui said. "You only have about 10 more days or so for the qualifying games and then the tournament begins."

Asked if he felt any pressure by Major League Baseball to play in the tournament, Matsui said he didn't.

"I think it was more of a request to want me to be a part of the tournament," Matsui said. "So in that sense, there wasn't really any pressure. It was basically my decision, mostly, to decide not to play."

Having to tell Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh about his decision not to play for Japan was a different story.

"He's my senior and I respect him very much," Matsui said. "Knowing that and having to make that decision and having to speak to him directly about that was very difficult."

Major Leaguers who decided to play in the WBC could miss up to three weeks of Spring Training depending on how far their teams advance. Once the tournament starts and the participating players leave, some wonder if the players like Matsui, who stayed behind, will feel left out.

"It's hard to say now at this point," Matsui said. "I would have to actually experience it first to be able to tell you how it feels. Certainly [Jeter, Rodriguez and Damon] are a major part of the team and they will be missed."

The problem for Matsui is that choosing the Yankees and Major League Baseball over Japan's national team could tarnish his nearly spotless image back home.

"It's very possible," Matsui said. "But, again, it can't be helped. If the popularity goes down, then it goes down. It's beyond my control."

Thomas Simonetti is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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