In the end, as is often the case with athletes, he stayed too long. Through three final years of steadily declining performance, he drifted from Anaheim to Oakland and finally to Tampa, where the Rays designated him for assignment after he hit just .147 with but two home runs in thirty-four games last season. But the lasting image of Hideki Matsui in this country is not of a player in the uniform of the Angels or A’s or Rays. When one thinks of Matsui, who earlier this week announced his retirement, the mind’s eye will always picture number 55 in pinstripes, patrolling left field at The Stadium and smashing home runs over the short porch in right.
Long before arriving in the Bronx Matsui built a career that made him a living legend in his native Japan. Drafted out of high school by the Yomiuri Giants, he hit 332 homers over ten seasons while leading Japan’s premier team to three championships, including in 2002, his final season before crossing the Pacific. That year Matsui was named the MVP of the Japan Central League for the third time, and slugged a career high 50 home runs, threatening the mark of 55 set by Sadaharu Oh in 1964. Matsui’s choice of uniform number was his way of paying homage to Japan’s home run king. Originally nicknamed “Godzilla” as a disparaging reference to a youthful skin condition, Matsui’s power at the plate converted the moniker to one of admiration by the time his ten-year career with the Giants came to an end.
Signed by the Yankees in December 2002, Matsui was feted with a parade in Tokyo prior to his departure. As has been the case with other Japanese stars playing in the States, Matsui’s career was covered by a bevy of Japanese reporters and photographers. But even with all that attention on top of the media spotlight that is a given when one plays for the Yankees, Matsui thrived in New York. In his first major league at-bat he hit an RBI single. In the team’s first home game at the old Stadium he smashed a grand slam, becoming the first Yankee to do so in their first game in the Bronx. In the 2003 World Series he became the first Japanese player to homer in the Fall Classic. In seven seasons with the Yankees he batted .292 with 140 home runs.
Yet for all of the many moments of greatness that Matsui gave to Yankee fans, none compared to his final performance in pinstripes. It was as if he knew that his time in New York was at an end, and so he went out in superstar fashion.
It was clear and crisp in the Bronx on the evening of November 4, 2009. With a three games to two lead over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees were looking to claim their 27th championship. Serving as New York’s designated hitter at home and as a pinch hitter in the National League park, Matsui was already batting over .500 for the Series, going five for nine with two home runs in the first five games.
With Alex Rodriguez on first base in the bottom of the 2nd, Matsui stepped in to face Pedro Martinez. A called strike and a lined foul quickly put him in a 0-2 hole. But he patiently worked the count full, fouling off two more offerings in the process. Then on the eighth pitch of the at-bat Matsui turned on a fastball over the inside part of the plate and sent a towering blast into the second deck in right for a two-run homer, giving the Yankees the lead.
After Philadelphia cut New York’s lead in half in the top of the 3rd, Matsui faced Martinez again in the bottom of the frame, this time with the bases loaded and two out. Once again the veteran pitcher got an 0-2 count but once again Matsui delivered, lining the third pitch to center for a two-run single, making the score 4-1 New York.
Two innings later Martinez was gone, and a Mark Teixeira RBI single had made it 5-1 Yankees. After a walk to Rodriguez sent Teixeira to second, Matsui faced J. A. Happ, the third Phillies pitcher of the night. This time Matsui got ahead in the count, 3-1. Then he sent a drive into the deepest part of right center field, where it caromed off the fence and away from Jayson Werth. The double, Matsui’s third hit of the night, plated both Texeira and Rodriguez and ballooned the Yankees’ lead to 7-1. Later that night, when Mariano Rivera got Shane Victorino to tap a ground ball toward Robinson Cano for the final out, the Yankees were back on top.
With three swings of his bat on that cold November night, Matsui drove home six runs. It was a World Series final game performance that called to mind the night more than three decades earlier, when Reggie Jackson flicked his wrists three times on the other side of 161st Street and made history. Matsui’s eight hits, three home runs and .615 batting average made him the obvious choice as the Series MVP. Two days later a crowd estimated at 3 million jammed the Canyon of Heroes along lower Broadway to shower their champions with ticker tape. Matsui stood in the front of a flatbed and heard fans screaming his name one more time.
He would go on to wear other uniforms, but in New York Hideki Matsui will always be a Yankee, and his 2009 World Series performance will always be part of the team’s rich history. He returned to New York this week to announce his retirement. Speaking in Japanese at his press conference, he reminded everyone that “Ten years ago, I said I would give it my best.” That he did. With humility and grace and more than occasional greatness, that he always did.