This feature on veteran third baseman Hiromi Matsunaga appeared in The Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles’ Japanese-English newspaper, in March 1998.
One Last Hurrah
Although he’s considered a longshot, 37-year-old Hiromi Matsunaga hasn’t given up on his dream to play in the major leagues.
By ED M. ODEVEN
PHOENIX―Like many Japanese ballplayers before him, Hiromi Matsunaga wanted a chance to play professional baseball in America.
But for the 37-year-old third baseman, that chance came later rather than sooner. It came this spring when Matsunaga left his native country to pursue his dream.
After 17 seasons, Matsunaga was ready for a change.
Matsunaga’s former team, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, initiated a youth movement last season that effectively limited his playing time. He appeared in only 15 games while posting a minuscule .125 batting average. But the career .293 hitter wasn’t ready to retire yet.
The desire and intensity to perform at such a high level has not diminished for the Oakland A’s non-roster invitee who wears No. 68 this spring.
“It’s the dream of every ballplayer to play in the big leagues,” Matsunaga said through an interpreter.
“I just decided at the end of my career to give it a shot.” And Matsunaga’s still playing because “I really like to play baseball.”
That’s what keeps him motivated―a chance to play American yakyu (baseball).
Matsunaga’s abilities and baseball smarts were detected instantly by A’s skipper Art Howe.
“I think he’s a solid player,” Howe said after Oakland defeated the San Francisco Giants 7-4 on a breezy Saturday afternoon at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. “From what I’ve seen he’s very mechanically sound. Hoe does things in the proper fashion. He sets himself well. He gets his feet under him real well. And he knows how to play third bas. … It’s pretty evident. He’s got very good hands. He can play third base well.”
Oakland infield coach Ron Washington agreed.
“He’s very smart, intelligent,” Washington said. “He can play the game. He’s a good ballplayer.”
So are others in the Oakland camp.
“The problem is in this camp he’s got about four or five guys in front of him when he came in here,” Howe said, including hot corner standouts Mike Blowers and Dave Magadan and young prospect Mark Bellhorn.
Unfortunately, Matsunaga needs playing time to shine.
Said Howe: “(Matsunaga’s) got to really impress people to have any kind of chance. He hasn’t been able to do that because he hasn’t received ample playing time.”
Matsunaga’s been utilized as a late-inning defensive replacement, and is hitless in six at-bats. But that hasn’t dampened the spirits of the easy-going fellow.
“It’s very difficult to become a member of the (25-man) roster, but I will try my best,” Matsunaga admitted.
Which is what he’s done whenever he’s practicing or playing.
“He’s a good worker,” Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada said.
And Matsunaga, who brought a personal trainer with him from Japan, is becoming accustomed to his new teammates and surroundings without any major obstacles.
“He’s enjoyed it down here. I mean, the guys really like him. He’s fit right in. And they are even pulling some tricks on him,” Howe said with a chuckle. “They hid his glove one day. They just call him Matsu all the time.”
Matsunaga agreed that it was a comfortable transition.
“First, I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know anything and I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “But after I came here, many people encouraged me. (Now) I enjoy playing.”
But what will it take for him to keep playing with the A’s after spring training?
According to Howe, Blowers and Magadan would have to both get hurt, “because they are both on the big-league team. That would improve his chances.”
“American baseball is ichiban (number one),” Matsunaga said.
“In Japan, the system is very complex. But in the U.S. they play very practically and effectively. In the U.S. they play very charismatic and dynamic.”
This is Matsunaga’s last hurrah. If he fails to make Oakland’s opening-day roster, he will retire with no regrets.
“If I can’t (make this team), I don’t want to change teams. I will go back to Japan and retire because I like Oakland.”
“No job,” he said in perfect English.