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The Hot Corner for December 5, 2002

Is Kazuo Matsui for real? Here is a guy who has all the physical talent in the world as well as the brains and discipline to make it come together.

A pitcher in high school, Matsui learned to play shortstop as a pro at the age of 18, and two years later learned to switch hit. The 27-year-old is now a three-time golden glover who hits for power and average from both sides of the plate.

The Lions' No. 1 base stealer, Matsui gives new meaning to the expression "quick study."

While the Seibu star won't announce he's dying to play in the majors, he has said the prospect is an attractive one. So now that the team has announced it won't sell him to the highest bidding major league team, what does Matsui do?

Just what you'd expect: He goes about his business without making a big deal about it.

Still, the dilemma Matsui and the Lions face illustrates the choices available to the pro yakyu establishment.

During the recently completed major league all-star tour of Japan, one of his teammates said the Lions' dynamo would not be back next season.

"He's going to the majors next year. I'm a 100 percent sure," said Alex Cabrera, the club's first baseman and Pacific League MVP, who is himself eyeing a return to "the show" after being dumped in the fall of 2000 by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But until Matsui's indentured servitude to Seibu owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi ends with next year's contract, the star cannot decide whom he wants to play professional baseball for or where.

The only way he could go next season is for the Lions to auction him off this winter: something the team has asserted it will not do.

This is understandable, since Matsui is arguably the best player in Japan, although his season didn't match Cabrera's in 2002. Since the goal is to win pennants, the idea is to hang on to players of Matsui's caliber--not sell them.

Like most teams in Japan, the Lions are in a no-win situation.

The Lions rarely fill inaccessible Seibu Dome on a weeknight even with an exciting and competitive club like the one they fielded this season. And, because Pacific League games cannot attract a big enough audience to land sponsors for prime-time network TV, the Lions' TV broadcast rights are practically worthless--regardless of how good the team is.

Little can be done about the Lions' lousy location, although they might play games at Tokyo Dome once the Fighters have moved on to greener pastures in Sapporo in 2004.

Selling Matsui to the majors would improve the team's cash flow but hurt the box office as the club becomes less competitive.

Although he is eager to play in the majors, Matsui is unlikely to whine or complain about his fate. Sure, he deserves the right to work where he likes, but the switch-hitter prefers fighting PL opponents to fighting the system.

After winning the Fighting Spirit Award for the Super Major Series Japan 2002--given to the MVP of the losing team--Matsui told The Hot Corner about the difficulty he and other Japanese stars face.

"It's a tough decision," said Matsui. "Seeing the kind of players that came here for the tour. The thought of playing against them everyday is attractive. As a player, you want to compete against the best."

Nothing new there. Competition, after all, is Matsui's line of work. So what's keeping guys back? After all, a number of stars have received offers from major league teams only to remain in Japan.

"Confidence is the main thing. You can't make the jump unless you are ready," said Matsui, who refused to be drawn into saying whether or not he himself was ready.

"If I do go, it will be hard because of my bonds with the Lions and with the fans. But it is up to each individual. If somebody wants to go, it's too bad, but that's his choice."

Matsui denied his smoking performance against the big leaguers was a calling card for a future in the majors.

"It was just a learning experience," he said.

Not the most comforting thought for the Lions' opponents, now that the fastest learner in Japanese ball is likely to be back for 2003.

The Hot Corner appears each Thursday in The Daily Yomiuri .

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