Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Japanese trio has countrymen glued to their screens

AP , TOKYO

Baseball-loving Japan sure knew the team to cheer for in this year's major league All-Star game, where a record three Japanese are playing -- all for the American League.

The game, televised nationwide here yesterday, was a dream come true for a nation already giddy with baseball fever.

Interest was especially high for Yankees rookie Hideki Matsui who, along with Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa, was an All-Stars this year -- the first time three Japanese have been chosen for the honors.

"I came to see the Japanese players especially Matsui," said Nobuyuki Adachi, a 26-year-old part-time worker who was glued to the game shown on large screens at a Tokyo cafe, where fans were clapping loudly for the Japanese players. "The Japanese players are great and just as good as the other major leaguers."

Baseball stardom may be the one spot of bright news for this nation plagued by a long slowdown and plunging consumer spending, grabbing headlines and hearts here by the day.

There's no doubt Matsui's No. 55 Yankee T-shirt is a hot-seller. Matsui, adored for years in Japan as "Godzilla," had made "55" very special over his years as a slugger with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Matsui's autographed bat is selling for ?2.5 million (US$21,000) at a Tokyo sporting goods store. And a huge portrait of his face is splashed across a Japan Airlines jet in a major campaign to encourage summer travel.

Japan Travel Bureau, the nation's top travel agency, says more than 3,600 Japanese have gone on packaged tours to see major league games this year, mostly to see Matsui.

Tour participants receive free Matsui Yankees T-shirts and a card featuring the English words for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," for singing along -- a practice that's alien to Japan's fans who favor shooting balloons into the air.

"The Matsui tours are going strong from the get-go," says Japan Travel Bureau spokesman Hiroshi Ueno.

Tokyo cabs are passing out entry slips for a quiz to win a trip to see a Yankees game by guessing if Matsui will get a hit at his first at-bat in an Aug. 2 game against the Oakland Athletics.

Kanebo Foods sold out its first shipment of gum with major league baseball cards in the pack. The Tokyo company, which refused to give specific sales figures, is planning another batch to keep up with demand.

Yesterday, office workers in ties were witnessed sneaking out for "planning meetings" at cafes with TV screens tuned into the All-Star game. And commuters stopped in their tracks at train stations to catch moments of the game.

"It's unbelievable that we stand on the same field," Suzuki said in a prerecorded interview with NHK TV, the public broadcaster that was televising the All-Star. "It's profound."

Sipping on a beer at a cafe, Kota Ito was wearing a White Sox jersey in honor of the All-Star home stadium. The 39-year-old travel agent was thrilled Matsui got a hit.

"It's not a home run. But it's a hit that has Matsui all over it," he said. "Americans love him, too."

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