The New York Times April 7, 2004              New York Post


The Mets Impress as Matsui Finds His Missing Swing

ATLANTA, April 6  When Kazuo Matsui slipped on his game jersey on Tuesday night, he could not read the quotation that was sewn into the right sleeve. He could not understand the legendary line uttered by Mets reliever Tug McGraw more than 30 years ago: "Ya Gotta Believe."

Perhaps Matsui's English-speaking teammates can explain the significance of those words, which will adorn the Mets' uniforms this season as a tribute to McGraw, who died of cancer in January. Or perhaps Matsui needs no explanation at all. On one memorable Tuesday night at Turner Field, the message translated in its entirety.

The Mets might have generated more excitement in the opening seconds of 2004 than in all of 2003. At 7:36 p.m. ? 8:36 a.m. the next day in Tokyo ? on the first pitch of the Mets' season and the first of Matsui's major league career, he hit a 429-foot home run to dead center field off the Atlanta ace Russ Ortiz.

It was the most unlikely development the Mets could have imagined and the best ball Matsui has hit since arriving in the United States. As Matsui, the Mets' leadoff man, sprinted around the bases, his teammates hopped around the dugout and one group of fans waved a sign with Japanese characters reading, "Be Hot Matsui."

Compared with that most surreal of scenes, the Mets' 7-2 opening-night victory over the Atlanta Braves, winners of 12 consecutive division titles, was practically a given. The Mets, who lost 95 games last year and committed a National League-leading 45 errors in spring training, are off to a head-turning start.

"Wow," Matsui said. "I don't think anyone imagined this. I didn't imagine it. It was an excitement I've never felt."

One day earlier, a reporter joked with Matsui about hitting a home run on opening day and he responded, "No chance." Instead, he became the third Met to homer in his first major league at-bat, the first player since 1938 to hit his first major league home run leading off on opening day, and the first player since Dwight Evans in 1986 to homer on the first pitch of the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

This was the same guy who hit .192 in spring training, led the Mets with 19 strikeouts and became the subject of concern from New York to Japan. Amazingly enough, he was 3 for 3 with three runs batted in in his regular-season debut, reached base all five times, and ripped a pair of doubles to right field.

Before the opener, Mike Cameron had told Matsui to close his eyes and pretend he was back in Tokyo. That piece of advice worked, in a way, for everyone. It seemed as though Tom Glavine was back winning Cy Young awards with the Atlanta Braves and Mike Piazza was back in 1999, his last 40-homer season.

Glavine did not allow a run after the first inning in beating his former team for the first time, and retired 16 of 17 batters during one stretch. After he was booed during pregame introductions, Glavine gave up a single to Rafael Furcal, a home run to Marcus Giles and a walk to Chipper Jones. But the locals should have remembered Glavine's reputation for faltering in the first inning and then settling down.

With Jones on first, Glavine walked off the mound and thought about last season, when he was 0-4 against the Braves with a 10.35 earned run average. He then gave himself a game-turning lecture. "I had a timeout with myself," Glavine said. "Every once in a while, you've got to give yourself a pep talk. I thought that things couldn't possibly get any worse. It was time to make pitches and get guys out and stop just trying not to make mistakes."

Inspired by both Glavine and Matsui, the Mets had 11 runners reach base in the first three innings, chased Ortiz after two and a third innings and led, 7-2, after the fourth. By then, everyone in the Mets' lineup had reached base except Cliff Floyd. Piazza, reminded often of his homerless streak, snapped it at 88 games, smashing a 420-foot blast into the left-center-field seats. "We were able to do exactly what we wanted," Piazza said.

Karim Garcia made two sliding catches, Cameron made three running grabs, and on at least one occasion, Glavine broke into a wide grin after a dazzling defensive play. When Glavine left, David Weathers pitched two perfect innings and Braden Looper broke three bats in a shutout ninth. What Glavine had termed "hope and optimism and all that stuff" was, for one night, renewed.

"We put it all together," said Art Howe, the Mets' manager. "I knew we were a lot better than what we showed in spring training."

When the Mets convened for a team dinner on Monday night at their hotel restaurant, Jim Duquette, the general manager, told them it was time to forget about everything that had come before. The first positive omen came Tuesday afternoon, when Howe found a $100 bill in his clubhouse office. Before the game, he walked up to every player and extended a hand, feeling like a hundred bucks himself.

Usually stoic and unemotional, Howe seemed almost shaken when Matsui led off with his home run. The second-year manager noticed that none of his players were still sitting on the bench. Most of them were in the air. "It was like a fairy tale," Howe said.

When Matsui came up for the last time, the Braves offered him the ultimate form of major league respect, issuing him an intentional walk to load the bases. Even Tug McGraw might not have believed it.


New York Post 2004/4/7


One pitch.
One pitch was all Kaz Matsui needed. It was all Art Howe needed. It was all Tom Glavine, the Mets and their fans needed to forget about 2003 and remember one thing about 2004:

This is a brand new year.

Matsui made remarkable history in last night's 7-2 season-opening win over the Braves, leading off by homering on the first pitch of the game, the first pitch of the season, the first pitch of his major-league career.

It was part of a magical night for the Japanese rookie shortstop, who went 3-for-3 with the homer, two doubles, three RBIs and two walks. Call it perhaps the greatest debut in Mets history, and, no, there's nothing lost in the translation there.

"It's more than I ever imagined," Matsui said.
Said Howe, "It's almost a fairy tale."

Sprinkle some pixie dust on Glavine, too, while you're at it. The former Braves ace finally avenged his Atlanta demons by tossing six innings of two-run ball.

It all was part of a dream night for the Mets, who with an opening-night win over their NL East rivals took last year's 15-2 Opening Day disaster against the Cubs, and last season's 66-95 catastrophe, and stuffed them both in the trash can.

Last night the Mets were an entirely different team. Mike Piazza slammed a 421-foot blast, moving within three homers of Carlton Fisk's catcher's record of 351. Jason Phillips reached base four times. The Mets played flawless defense, with Karim Garcia making two sliding catches, and tossed three scoreless relief innings, with Braden Looper breaking three bats in one inning.

None of it compared to Matsui.

With about a week left in a dreadful spring that saw him hit .192 and fight nagging injuries, Matsui received a pep talk from Mike Cameron.

"Man, just play," Cameron said last night in recalling what he told Matsui. "Play like you did in Japan."

Cameron added, "Damn if he didn't do that tonight."

At 7:35 p.m. (8:35 a.m., Japan), Matsui - who when asked Monday about the possibility of homering in his first at-bat said, "no chance" - strode to the plate to face 21-game winner Russ Ortiz. He bowed to catcher Johnny Estrada then settled into the left-handed batter's box.

Matsui had decided if the first pitch was a strike, he was swinging at it, and as if on cue, Ortiz offered a chest-high fastball. Matsui was all over it, sending a soaring drive over the center-field wall.

"It was an excitement I never felt in the past," Matsui said.

Matsui wasn't even close to done. In the second inning, he ripped an RBI double down the right-field line. He then drew a bases-loaded walk, drilled another double to center and, incredibly, was walked intentionally to load the bases. When's the last time that happened in a guy's first game?

The whole thing started with one pitch. Brand-new leadoff man. Brand-new year.