by Wayne Craczyk
Six months ago, professional sports agent Arn Tellem never dreamed he would be the one to represent Japanese superstar free agent pro baseball player Hideki Matsui. Tellem figured Matsui, coming off a 50-home run, MVP season with the Japan Series Champion Yomiuri Giants, already had hired someone who would negotiate a lucrative contract with a Major League team during this off-season.
Then an out-of-the-blue phone call in November from a Japanese attorney dramatically changed Tellem’s life. Matsui had chosen him to be the go-between in contract talks with MLB clubs. Eventually, with Tellem’s help, Matsui signed a three-year, $21-million deal with the New York Yankees.
The series of events is a highlight of Tellem’s 20-year career working with great athletes. Considered one of the top agents in sports, he has negotiated contracts for, among many others, Yankees great Jason Giambi and NBA basketball superstar Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Matsui tie-up is so significant because it came as such a surprise, Tellem told media members gathered for a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo last week.
“I could not believe the phone call, and thought it was a joke,” he said, after being contacted just prior to Thanksgiving by a Japanese lawyer in Los Angeles. “I knew about Hideki, that he was one of the top players in Japan, he had played for the most popular team in Japan and that he was going to become a free agent and wanted to try the Majors,” Tellem said. “I had thought for sure he already had an agent and so never pursued him.”
But, after recovering from the shock of the call, Tellem told the attorney, “If (Matsui’s) open, I’m interested. Tellem then sent a letter of introduction, explaining what services he could provide, to another attorney in Japan. By the end of November, e-mails were exchanged regularly. “It started looking good. I really got excited,” said Tellem.
On the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Matsui announced he was selecting Tellem without even having met him. “I was so moved when I heard Hideki had chosen me, saying he did so because of my sincerity and reputation of integrity. It is those two values that carry relationships.”
If Tellem did not know what he was getting into, he found out when he traveled to Japan to meet with his newest client a few days later and landed at the airport in Osaka. “I was met at baggage claim by several hundred media. The interest just blew me away,” he said.
He met with Matsui and his parents and was immediately impressed about how professional and articulate was the player. “I was so excited. I could have flown home without an airplane, I was so happy,” Tellem said.
Returning to the U.S. (on the plane), Tellem began work on Matsui’s contract after being told by the player that his salary should not be the only consideration. “Besides money, he wanted to be on a premier team, like the Yankees. He wanted freedom as a player to have control over his career,” Tellem said.
The contract with New York allows for Matsui to become a free agent again after its expiration following the 2005 season. (Speculation has it Matsui, now 28, would then return to the Yomiuri Giants at age 31 and finish his career here, but that remains to be seen.)
The bond between Tellem and Matsui was further strengthened when the player traveled to New York early in January to actually sign with the Bronx Bombers, and the agent became that much more impressed with Matsui as a human being.
“When he went to New York for the press conference and signing,” said Tellem, “the first thing Hideki wanted to do was visit Ground Zero. It had been a moving experience for me, and also for him, to go out on that platform and see the flags of the countries who lost people” on Sept. 11, 2001, in terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers.
Tellem described Matsui’s press conference as the largest in the history of the Yankees. “So large they could not hold it at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had to rent a ballroom at a mid-town hotel. (New York City) Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg was there, as was a Japanese delegation from the United Nations.
“Cameras shot for about 10 minutes, and Hideki spoke for five minutes to the media, telling of his dream of going there. He was a great player in Japan, and now will be a great player in all baseball. He wants to be a good will ambassador between the U.S. and Japan; not just in sports but all of humanity, and to bring our countries closer together. Nothing could be more important in this time in which we live,” Tellem said.
Matsui also did some fun things while in the Big Apple, posing for publicity photos in his Yankees cap and pinstriped No. 55 jersey, with the glaring neon of Times Square in the background. He also appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman” to read the Top Ten List. (See below.)
In a few days, Matsui and the Yankees will begin spring training in Tampa, Florida, preparing for a pivotal season. Tellem refused to predict how many homers Matsui will hit this year or what his batting average will read, but he summed up by saying:
“Here is a young man hoping to achieve his dream in America. He will represent his country well playing in the U.S. This is also a moment of great hope for me.
“Hideki is a three-time MVP in Japan, an icon of this country. He has a very good life but is putting it all on the line to go to the U.S. to take on the challenge in the ‘pressure cooker of all pressure cookers.’ With the Yankees, he will be under more scrutiny than he would be with any other team in sports. His drive, courage and passion for the game force him to strive to achieve all he can out of his life.
“I believe he will be a success in the U.S., and I wish it for him more than anyone I’ve ever represented.”I believe he will be a success in the U.S., and I wish it for him more than anyone I’ve ever represented.