Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — Some 30-40 Japanese media members were outside the Angels' spring-training complex Tuesday afternoon, waiting to speak to Hideki Matsui while he addressed a handful of American reporters.
At the end of the 10-minute interview, in which the Angels' new designated hitter showed a keen sense of humor that belies his usually stoic face, Matsui was asked what the Japanese media might ask him that American reporters didn't.
"Maybe what kind of underwear I'm wearing," Matsui deadpanned through an interpreter.
He seemed to be kidding…or was he?
Everything Matsui does — even wears — is newsworthy to the Japanese media, whose blanket coverage of the 35-year-old slugger borders on obsessive.
When Matsui arrives at Tempe Diablo Stadium in the morning, the large Japanese media contingent is at the back entrance to greet him, and the same group returns to the parking lot in the afternoon to send him off.
"They cover him as he leaves because at the last minute, before he gets in his car, he might trip on something and fall down," Isao Hirooka, an Angels employee who coordinates the Japanese media's coverage of Matsui, said through an interpreter. "And that's going to be news."
During batting practice, reporters line up in front of the third-base dugout and keep track of Matsui's home runs. Some estimate the number of hits and outs he would have made and calculate his batting average for the session.
If Matsui heads to the lower fields behind the stadium, a long train of Japanese reporters, photographers and cameramen follow.
"If he's walking down by Field 1 and he gets stung by a scorpion or bit by a rattlesnake," Hirooka said, "that would be big news."
When Roger Kahlon, Matsui's interpreter, warned the media about those scorpions, the Sports Hochi newspaper published an article the next day with a headline that evoked Matsui's nickname: "Godzilla vs. Scorpion."
On Sunday, when Matsui was in the lineup for the first time this spring, photographers snapped shots of the lineup card posted outside the clubhouse.
"We focus on only one player, so it's difficult," said Nobuyuki Kobayashi, who covers Matsui and Seattle star Ichiro Suzuki for Tokyo Daily Sports. "We try to find something different every day."
Matsui does what he can to oblige. Every day, whether he plays or not, has four hits or strikes out four times, Matsui addresses the Japanese media as a group, a routine he followed for seven seasons as New York Yankee and has continued with the Angels.
"I can't even imagine that," Angels pitcher Joe Saunders said. "Just the sheer volume of people you're responsible to, because you know they're not there for anyone else but you. That would be tough."
It's hard to fathom the Matsui phenomenon in reverse, a prominent American athlete going to another country to play and attracting a daily U.S. media crush.
"Maybe Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, guys everyone would want to know about," said Angels right fielder Bobby Abreu, a Yankees teammate of Matsui's for 2 1/2 seasons.
Asked how The Times might cover Bryant if he played in Europe, sports editor Mike James said, "We'd have someone go over to give readers a picture of what the experience is like for him and for fans and businesses there — but not for eight months."
The contingent following Matsui is made up of reporters, photographers and cameramen from six all-sports newspapers, six television stations, four daily newspapers, three evening papers, two news agencies and one radio station.
Some outlets send more than one reporter to the U.S. to cover Matsui, who signed a one-year, $6-million deal with the Angels after winning World Series most-valuable-player honors for the Yankees last November. Suzuki draws a similar crowd in Seattle.
"I think it's because they were stars in Japan, and we want to see how they do here against major leaguers," said Sam Onoda, a coordinator for NHK, a public broadcasting network. "It does get a little crazy at times, but there is a lot of competition between media, and we try not to overlook anything."
Matsui, who holds news conferences outside of the clubhouse so as not to be a distraction to his teammates, said he is used to the attention because "it's been like this since day one of professional baseball for me."
He is much more open and accommodating than Ichiro and has fostered a good relationship with reporters, whom he usually treats to dinner at least once a year.
"He handles it very well," Abreu said. "He's a nice person, quiet, humble. He's used to it, so it's a regular day for him."
Matsui actually started generating a media buzz as a high school junior, when he was walked intentionally five times in one game of a tournament Hirooka described as being "similar to the NCAA basketball tournament in terms of popularity and media attention."