With Kaz Matsui on his way to Colorado, let's take a look back to how things were supposed to be. Here's a reprint of my story on Kaz Matsui's midtown unveiling that appeared in the Dec. 11, 2003 edition of Newsday.
Even the best-laid plans ... Enjoy.
BY DAVID LENNON
When Kazuo Matsui held up his black Mets jersey yesterday, it ignited a lightning storm of flashes, the kind of blinding adoration New York usually reserves for the likes of Britney Spears or even Derek Jeter, not for a baseball club struggling for credibility. But in reaching across the Pacific to sign the Japanese shortstop, the Mets finally made their presence felt this offseason, and unveiling Matsui in midtown Manhattan was perhaps the first step toward shaking off the futility of consecutive last-place finishes.
As first steps go, this was a big deal. In a hotel ballroom stuffed with hundreds of reporters, many of them Japanese, Matsui, 28, officially was welcomed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, just as the Yankees' Hideki Matsui (no relation) was when his signing was announced a year earlier. Bloomberg played it straight down the middle, hoping for another Subway Series, but the flame-haired shortstop was not bashful in his ambition, boldly showing off a 1986 World Series ring he borrowed from a Mets executive during lunch.
"I'm going to do my best to bring another one to this city for the New York Mets," Matsui said through interpreter George Rose.
The Mets no doubt appreciated his enthusiasm, but don't expect any World Series predictions from team officials anytime soon. It was not an easy decision to green-light Matsui's three-year, $20.1-million contract by shifting Jose Reyes from shortstop to second base, and the front office will be holding its collective breath until the two mesh as a double-play combination and atop the batting order. In keeping with Matsui's '86 theme, more than one Mets official described them as a Lenny Dykstra-Wally Backman offensive tandem, or at least that's what they're hoping for.
Manager Art Howe said yesterday that the switch-hitting Matsui, who batted .305 with 33 home runs and a .365 on-base percentage last season, most likely would lead off and Reyes, also a switch hitter, would follow him. Matsui displayed a rare blend of power and speed as a seven-time All-Star for the Seibu Lions, and he caught Howe's attention during the major-leaguers' barnstorming tour of Japan in November 2002. Howe watched Matsui from both sides of the plate in a game, so when the Mets' interest percolated, Matsui already had a supporter.
"I certainly told them he was an option," Howe said. "A very good option."
By then, Matsui, still a season away from free agency, was hardly a secret. But the Mets stayed close, with Pacific Rim scout Isao Ojimi already building a relationship with Japan's most coveted player. So did Fred Wilpon's son Bruce, who lives in Tokyo. The Mets, spurred by former manager Bobby Valentine, have been among the most progressive teams in signing Japanese players. After missing out on Hideki Matsui and Norihiro Nakamura last year, the Mets moved quickly to secure Kazuo Matsui once negotiations fell apart with free-agent second baseman Luis Castillo, who returned to the world champion Marlins.
The Mets envisioned Castillo as the perfect double-play partner for the maturing Reyes, as well as a selective hitter who could hit in front or behind him. But by signing Matsui, they acquired a player with more power and greatly improved themselves up the middle by moving Reyes to second base.
Reyes willingly surrendered his position during a visit by general manager Jim Duquette to the Dominican Republic, and the Mets did Reyes a favor in return by letting him keep his No. 7. Matsui will wear No. 25 - adding both digits equals the number he wore in Japan.
"We're going to be able to turn some double plays that other teams aren't going to be able to turn just because of the two power arms we're going to have in the middle of the infield," Howe said. "These kids can really throw it. We saw it from Jose last year, and this kid has the same type of arm."
Duquette, knowing the skepticism that accompanies Japanese players to the majors, admitted Matsui is a "calculated risk."
As Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki have proven, that risk is not without reward. Kazuo Matsui is different in that he is the first Japanese infielder to be signed by a major-league team. But Duquette, clearly thrilled by the first big free-agent score of his brief tenure, is ready to use Matsui's signing as a springboard into this weekend's winter meetings in New Orleans.
"It helps," Duquette said. "It takes a little bit of the pressure off. I know for a fact that since we did sign [Matsui], a number of players have greater interest in the Mets."