Hideki Matsui's run may never be equaled

Hideki Matsui of the Tampa Bay Rays during

Hideki Matsui of the Tampa Bay Rays during the second inning of a game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. (June 5, 2012) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

As Yu Darvish began his rock-star ascension with the Rangers this season, Hideki Matsui was looking for a job. Only three years earlier, Matsui was the World Series MVP for the Yankees, one of the most powerful sports franchises on the planet.

"I try not to remember any of that because it doesn't really benefit me at this point, recalling the past experience," Matsui said this week in his return to Yankee Stadium as a member of the Rays. "Until I'm done with baseball, I'll just keep it in a certain part of my mind and hopefully reminisce at that point."

When Matsui does call it quits, however, it will signal the end of an era as far as Japanese baseball's imprint on the majors. While Darvish has the star-power to carry that spotlight, along with the lesser constellation of Japanese players dotting the landscape, Matsui's decade-long run in the States, including seven in the Bronx, may never be equaled.

And at the time Matsui is nearing the end -- he turns 37 on Tuesday -- so is Ichiro Suzuki, who is 38 and in the final season of his five-year, $90-million contract with Seattle. Ichiro, who won both the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001, also is a 10-time All-Star.

As far as position players, Matsui and Ichiro are nearly impossible to replace. They were icons in Japan that became even bigger after their move here, and when both retire, it will leave a sizable void with no immediate understudies.

Darvish now stirs the same kind of media frenzy, but he can't do it all by himself. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was the 2007 Darvish, couldn't sustain the hype for as long a period as either Matsui or Ichiro and he's now fighting to regain some momentum on his way back from Tommy John surgery. When asked if there would be a new series of Japanese stars to replace this aging group, the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda smiled.

"I never thought that I was old," Kuroda joked, as interpreted by Kenji Nimura. "But if you see a young guy coming like Darvish, you're forced to think that you're a veteran, so I guess there will be a next wave of players coming from Japan."

Kuroda raises another interesting point. Despite the consistent flow of Japanese players to the majors, there really hasn't been a corresponding influx of coaches or managers. Plenty of teams have significant scouting bureaus in Asia, but once players arrive here, the transition can be challenging, to say the least.

"It's a difficult question," Kuroda said. "I think it's great for Japanese baseball for good players from Japan to come to play in the big leagues because it will bring the level of baseball really up in Japan as well. We have so many Latin coaches and so many Latin players here in the big leagues, I wish that in the future there will be Japanese coaches, coaching at some teams, so it will be easier for Japanese players to come here."

Matsui hedged when asked about the significance of Japanese stars migrating to the States. It's a touchy subject. Imagine if teams like the Yankees, Mets or Red Sox -- to name a few -- routinely lost their most popular players to another league? "I think it's really more of a personal decision than anything else," Matsui said. "There are players that came from Japan and did well. And players that didn't quite make the adjustment and went back. Did that really any way make Japanese baseball any better or any worse? Personally I don't think so. I think it's comes down to really more of an individual decision, to come over here or not."

'Gigante' update

After last Sunday's column on Andres Torres' lifelong battle with ADHD, and his film, "Gigante," many people contacted me looking for more information about a release date or how they might acquire a DVD. Even after seeing the movie, it was eye-opening to discover how many people are affected by the condition or have experience with someone struggling with it.

The version of "Gigante" screened last month was only a rough cut awaiting the final editing process. At this point, they are looking for a distributor of the movie, and hope to enter it in a film festival, such as Sundance, later this year. Eventually, the movie is expected to be available on DVD, but check the film's website for updates: www.yungogigante.com.

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