Matumoto can't believe his good fortune

Matumoto can't believe his fortune in Toronto

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It all was too overwhelming for Jo Matumoto. As he sat with reporters, answering questions about his improbable journey to Toronto's Major League camp, the pitcher wiped away a tear.

Matumoto turned to his wife, Maria Fernanda De Luca, and spoke softly in Portuguese. They smiled at each other, and De Luca translated his words for those in the room.

"I'm still dreaming," he said. "I never thought that I would be here."

There weren't many big-league clubs that knew Matumoto even existed until recently. The 36-year-old Brazilian, who is of Japanese descent, had slipped between the cracks until the Blue Jays signed him to a Minor League contract Friday.

Toronto still might not have heard of Matumoto had it not been for an inspiring e-mail that arrived in agent Randy Hendricks' inbox in November. What he read was a two-page message from De Luca, who was desperately searching for someone in North America who would be willing to watch her husband throw a baseball.

"It was sort of this pleading petition, 'Would you really help us realize our dream?'" said Hendricks, who also represents pitcher Roger Clemens. "But we thought, because of his age, that nobody would be interested. You know how the system works."

Hendricks' initial response was brief, saying only that he'd try to find an Independent League team that might give Matumoto a tryout. It seemed unlikely that any Major League clubs would be interested in the aging ace of the Brazilian national team.

So Matumoto made a trip earlier this month to Houston, where Hendricks, pitching instructor David Evans and a representative from an Independent League club in the Golden Baseball League were on hand to see what the left-hander had to offer. It was a short session, but the trio stood silent at its conclusion.

"We said, 'He doesn't belong in the Independent Leagues; he's got Major League stuff,'" Hendricks recalled.

That news came as a long-awaited blessing for Matumoto, who trained alone this past winter. After working with computers during the day, the lack of a willing receiver forced Matumoto to sling baseballs against a wall for practice.

He spent a lot of time running, building up endurance, but his arm strength is well behind where others pitchers are at this point during Spring Training. The lefty showed off his sidearm delivery for roughly 10 minutes in the bullpen on his first day with Toronto, which believes Matumoto could begin this season at Double-A New Hampshire or Triple-A Syracuse.

"My joke is he just parachuted in from the planet Kryptonite. I call it Project Superman," Hendricks said. "It's sort of an interesting story and we hope it has a fairy tale ending for them, where he plays for the Blue Jays this year."

Before this year, Matumoto served as the ace of Brazil's national baseball team, and he also pitched for the Nippon Blue Jays -- founded by Brazilian Jose Pett, who pitched in Toronto's farm system in the late 1990s. Matumoto was named the Most Valuable Player of the South American Games in 2005, when he led Brazil to a victory over Venezuela.

Matumoto joined the Brazilian team in 2001 after many years pitching in the industrial leagues in Japan. He once received the opportunity to play professionally in Japan, but his manager didn't want to lose the left-hander.

"It works differently in Japan," explained De Luca, who spent time as an exchange student in Cambridge, Ontario, as a high schooler. "They asked the coaches, and his coach said, 'No.' So he left Japan to pitch in Brazil, because his coach wouldn't release him."

While in Brazil, though, Matumoto found it difficult to gain the attention of Major League clubs. His frustration reached a point that nearly convinced him to walk away from baseball for good.

"He was a little tired of not being seen," De Luca said. "That's how crazy he thought the dream was. He thought about, 'I don't want this anymore. I'm going to quit.'"

On Wednesday, Sal Butera, a special assistant to Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, headed to Jesuit High School in Tampa to watch Matumoto pitch before a crowd of 40-50 scouts from nearly every Major League organization.

After watching the session, which was arranged by Hendricks, Butera told Ricciardi that Matumoto was worth the risk. He only hit around 84 mph on the radar gun, but his pitches moved very well. Matumoto throws three pitches, including a unique changeup -- taught to him by a Cuban pitcher -- that acts similar to a screwball.

"I just thought if we got the opportunity, he was somebody not like anyone we have in the Minor Leagues," Butera said. "I saw enough there that I thought he was worth the risk. He's had no tutelage -- no training whatsoever. He's as raw a commodity as you get."

Hendricks noted that a handful of teams were interested in signing Matumoto, but the Blue Jays "said all the right things." Toronto was willing to offer training, and it would provide as much time as Matumoto needed to adjust to professional baseball.

For Matumoto, Toronto's offer was a dream come true.

"I was already quitting. I was giving up," De Luca said, relaying Matumoto's words. "I'm here thanks to my wife."

Then, Matumoto smiled at De Luca and spoke three words in perfect English.

"My special wife."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.