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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Matsui's stellar career, easy charm won admirers on, off baseball diamond


Happy New Year and welcome to 2013. One of the bigger stories to close out the 2012 baseball news year was the retirement of former Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui at the age of 38. The Dec. 28 announcement ended the career of one of the more memorable players in Japanese baseball and MLB: No. 55, Godzilla.

Matsui gained national prominence in Japan as a high school player in the early 1990s. He was so far ahead of everyone else, and opposing teams so anticipated he might hit a home run every time he stepped up to the plate, they walked him intentionally — even with the bases loaded — during the national tournament at Koshien Stadium.

He joined the Giants at 18 in 1993, two years before Hideo Nomo would open the door for Japanese players to go to the majors, and it was predicted Matsui would go on to become one of the all-time greats in Japanese baseball over the next two decades. He wound up playing only 10 years in Tokyo, but spectacular years they were.

There were the Central League home run and RBI titles, a batting crown, three MVP awards, four CL pennants and three Japan Series championships, and we will never know how many more prizes Matsui might have won and where he would have ranked statistically among the best hitters in Japan had he stayed.

Nomo opened the "genkan," or entrance way, to the majors for Japanese pitchers in 1995, followed by others such as Hideki Irabu and Kazuhiro Sasaki. But when Ichiro Suzuki was posted and found immediate success with the Seattle Mariners in 2000, Matsui realized Japanese hitters also had a chance in the big leagues.

Following the 2002 season in which he belted 50 homers, took home a third CL MVP trophy and led the Giants to a sweep of the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series, Matsui decided to use his free agency and follow Ichiro to North America.

"I would like to test my skills at the highest level," he said at the time, and he prepared a letter and resume in English to be sent to all 30 MLB clubs, intending — perhaps naively — to present himself without the use of an agent. Eventually, he was convinced it was best to have representation, and he hired one of the best in Arn Tellem.

"It doesn't matter which team I join; any major league club would be fine," Matsui said in December of 2002.

However, I really think he had his head and his heart set on going to New York, wearing the fabled pinstripe uniform and playing in Yankee Stadium, the home of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle — and that short right-field porch so friendly to left-handed sluggers.

At first, there were attempts by members of the Giants hierarchy and Yomiuri parent company officials to dissuade Matsui from leaving the team. His manager and mentor, Shigeo Nagashima, advised him to stay with the club. So did his last manager with the Giants, Tatsunori Hara, but Matsui was determined to go.

Once Matsui officially signed with New York, the entire Yomiuri group wished him well and began to think how it could take advantage of the situation. The Giants established a working relationship with the Yankees, who had been longtime partners with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

A highlight came in March of 2004 when the Yanks with Matsui traveled to Japan to open the MLB season against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Sold-out crowds packed Tokyo Dome to see their hero perform in a Yankees uniform, and manager Joe Torre obliged requests to play Matsui in center field and bat him fourth during exhibition games against the Giants and Hanshin Tigers.

During his seven years in Gotham, Matsui was able to make the adjustment to the big leagues, the Big Apple and the big Yankee Stadium (old and new, the latter opened in 2009), enjoying productive seasons with his teammates. He was able to finish his career with New York as a hot hitter, belting three homers in the 2009 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and earning the Series MVP honor.

He spent 2010-12 with the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays, but his performance was nothing like his Yankees days. His troubling knee problems got worse, and he was released by the Rays last summer. He sat out the rest of the year as the Japanese media began to speculate on his future.

Rumors surfaced Matsui was wanted back in Japan by at least three teams: the Fighters, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Yokohama BayStars, but he insisted he would play again in the majors or nowhere. Until the day before he announced his retirement last week, there had been talk the Houston Astros might have interest. The Astros, moving to the American League this season, could have used him as a designated hitter.

For sure, Matsui was one of the most gracious in giving autographs to fans and posing for photos. I can recall seeing him inside the gate at New Chitose Airport in Sapporo during his heyday with the Giants. Fans and travelers, surprised to see him browsing in the shops, asked him for a favor. He refused no one.

After signing or posing, he politely responded to the fans' appreciation by saying, "Ton de mo nai," which can have various translations such as "you're welcome," "don't mention it," or "no problem," but when Matsui was saying it, the best English version might have been, "it was my pleasure."

What does he do now?

No doubt Japanese TV and radio stations will invite Matsui to a seat in the broadcast booth, as a regular or for special occasions. It would also not be a surprise if he was someday named manager of the Giants or another Japanese team — if that is something he would like to do.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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