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Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2003 12:00 am

In a city where all the other teams are painfully below average, the Yankees news never stops.

This week, George Steinbrenner made (more) headlines when he chastised two baseball writers for not including Hideki Matsui on their Rookie of the Year ballots. If either writer had named Matsui as the first- or second-best American League rookie, Matsui would have won the award.

The reason they did not rank him is they do not consider the 29-year-old Matsui, who played eight years in the Japanese leagues (where he was named MVP), a rookie.

The incident is similar to one four years ago, when Texas’ Ivan Rodriguez eked out an MVP win over Boston’s Pedro Martinez, when Martinez was left off two baseball writer’s ballots entirely.

(To add fuel to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, if it needs any, a Boston writer cost Matsui the award and a New York writer cost Martinez the award.)

Matsui technically qualifies as a rookie, and he would have been the fourth Japanese player to win the honor. Instead, Kansas City’s Angel Berroa won. Berroa was left off two ballots entirely as well, but no one is calling for heads to roll on his account.

It is entirely understandable for someone to not give Matsui credit for being a rookie. As one of the two writers, Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, pointed out, the Yankees spent millions on Matsui because he was an all-star caliber player.

The only person who does not seem to be affected is Matsui, the consummate professional, who said he was just happy to be considered for the award.

Nonetheless, the criteria needs to be changed, or there will be a similar argument every time a foreign player easily adapts to the major leagues in his first year.

I don’t think it is fair to the Japanese players to have a rule disallowing them specifically from winning the award in their first year. It is entirely possible other countries will have similarly high-quality baseball leagues some day, and those players could then win rookie awards at the Japanese players’ expense.

I also don’t think the Japanese players should be considered for the award anymore. I believe this for the same reason American teams want the players in the first place: they are playing professional baseball at a high level.

The solution is an age limit. The National Hockey League has already established that anyone over 25 is not eligible for the rookie of the year award, and it would serve baseball well.

In the case of Japanese veterans, most of them would be excluded, because they must play at least five seasons before they are allowed to leave their teams. Most would then be over 25, but 27 would be a more acceptable age limit.

The only players who would be negatively affected are career minor leaguers, who have a breakout season at age 30. With at least 10 seasons of minor league baseball under their belts, it would be fair not to call these players rookies.

But with the Yankees involved, all rational thought usually goes out the window. The focus of this year’s award should not be on how Matsui did not win, but why Berroa did. The 25-year-old Berroa helped the Royals finish over .500 for the first time in years. Forget the pinstripes—that’s a great story.

Welcome to the discussion.