Hideki, Rickey connect over mutual respect

Hideki, Rickey connect over mutual respect

PHOENIX -- Hideki Matsui's early childhood interest in the A's, whom he followed in the late 1980s thanks to international telecasts in Japan, largely stemmed from watching the speedy wonder that was Rickey Henderson.

Baseball's all-time steals leader reminded Matsui of Yutaka Fukumoto, who quietly helped set the standard of the way leadoff hitters were perceived long before Henderson came on stage.

Fukumoto, who led the Pacific League in steals every season from 1970-81, is Japan's all-time career stolen base leader with 1,065. Across the pond, Henderson finished his career with 1,406.

"When I watched Oakland, that was during the time when the A's were very strong and Rickey was hitting leadoff," Matsui said through translator, Roger Kahlon. "That was my first impression of him. What I really remember most was, at the time in Japan, Fukumoto was the steals leader and Rickey tied him. I was always watching him."

These days, Henderson is glued to the wonder that is Matsui, Oakland's newest designated hitter.

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"When I went over to Japan years ago, I was able to see what a big guy he is over there," Henderson said. "It's just amazing the way the people take to him. Not too many people understand what he did over there and what it meant to everyone."

Fans of each other, Matsui and Henderson have formed a friendly connection in camp, where Henderson is acting as a special instructor for outfielders and baserunners. The 36-year-old Matsui has retreated from the outfield to DH duties in recent years because of bad knees, but Henderson is well aware of the speed he once displayed.

"He says he's not as fast as me, which is probably true, but I know he used to do some running," Henderson said, smiling. "I read one of his biographies, and that's how I found out he used to run track."

It was more like an annual relay in Japan, where Matsui took first place in his age division for more than five years running. Despite the strong longing to reach the ranks where Henderson was standing, a realistic Matsui didn't quite have stolen base records on his to-do list.

"I already knew that was impossible," Matsui said. "I never had that in my mind."

Rather, Matsui has put together a .290 mark with 161 home runs and 681 RBIs in more than 1,000 games over eight seasons in the Majors -- all following 10-plus seasons with Japan's Yomiuri Giants, for which he hit .304 with 332 long balls and 889 RBIs in 1,268 contests.

"I know he was a big fan of the A's and me, but I'm just as much impressed with what he's done," Henderson said. "We've talked about how I approached the game, and I told him I admire him for the way he's gone about his business.

"I just told him to keep enjoying this as long as you can."

Matsui would love to see Henderson back on the field, so long as there's no foot race involved.

"If you're talking about running," Matsui said, "there's no doubt he's faster than me."

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.