Hideki Matsui: Warrior in the Clutch

In his final season with the Yankees Hideki Matsui illustrated the two sides of a tiger’s nature — a willingness to endure patiently any amount of sacrifice out of loyalty, on the one hand, and, on the other, a readiness to cut all ties at any perceived disloyalty of others.

After surgeries to both knees, one in 2007 and the other at the end of the 2008 season, Matsui accepted a demotion to designated hitter and still batted .274 with 28 homers and 90 RBIs during the 2009 season. During the first 3 games of the World Series against Philadelphia he went uncalled. But when the team turned to him in dire need in Games 4, 5 and 6, Matsui came through heroically with three homers and eight RBIs for a .615 average. In Game 6 he clinched the Series by driving in six runs, winning the World Series MVP award.

His contract expired at the end of the season. Matsui waited as the Yankees entered negotiations with other players. But when he learned that the team was keeping him on hold while it explored a DH deal with Johnny Damon, Matsui walked, observing that the Yankees had no sense of loyalty. He took a $6.5 mil. 1-year deal from the Los Angeles Angels. Ironically, that’s the team scheduled to face the Yankees in their April 13, 2010 season opener when Matsui will be awarded his championship ring.

Hideki Matsui was born June 12, 1974 in Neagari, Ishikawa, Japan. He first started playing baseball at the age of three with his father. As a boy Hideki batted right-handed (and continues to throw right-handed today). He was good enough to be invited to play with his older brother’s crowd — too good. His peevish brother demanded that Hideki start batting lefty if he wanted to keep playing with them. Before long the baseball prodigy became an even better left-handed slugger. That was an early instance of Matsui’s willingness to sacrifice to win new friends.

Hideki’s Godzilla nickname was apparently earned during his four seasons at Seiryo High School in Kanazawa, a baseball powerhouse in Western Japan. By his junior year he stood 6-foot and over 200 pounds. He was also afflicted with a bad case of acne. By his senior year Matsui had won so much acclaim for power hitting that at the 1992 National High School Baseball Tournaments he drew five consecutive intentional walks from the opposing pitcher. That weaselly strategy was jeered but Matsui’s team lost. However, Matsui won even more praise for his gentlemanly acceptance of the situation.

Matsui had been a lifelong fan of the perenially mediocre Hanshin Tigers and hoped to play for them, showing again his tiger tendency to place personal sentiment above money and advantage. But his high school exploits had made him the first-round draft pick of the Yomiuri Giants, the team for which he would play during all his ten pro seasons in Japan.

In a hopeful spirit the Giants assigned Matsui the number 55, the single-season home run record held by legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh. Unfortunately, Matsui failed to live up to their high hopes during his first three seasons. But in 1996 Matsui batted .314 with 38 home runs and 99 RBIs. Ultimately, Matsui led the Giants into four Japan Series and won in 1994, 2000 and 2002. He also led the league in home runs and RBIs in 1998, 2000, and 2002. In 2002, his last season in Japan, he set his single season home run record of 50. But his most impressive record was 1,250 consecutive games played, Japan’s second longest.

Even before he signed with the Yankees, Matsui made known his ambition to play in the U.S. In 2001 he declined the Giant’s record 6-year, $64 million offer. Instead, in December of 2002 he signed a four-year $52 million deal with the Yankees. Instead of being miffed Tokyo threw him a parade to celebrate. It was as though they knew that great things were in the offing for Matsui and for Japan. In the 2003 Yankee home opener, Matsui became the first Yankee to hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium.

Yankee fans quickly came to see Matsui as a clutch player and one the team could rely on. He didn’t miss a game in his first three seasons with the Yankees, a streak of 518 games. That streak ended on May 11, 2006 when Matsui fractured his left wrist while sliding to make a catch in the top of the first inning against the Boston Red Sox. Despite the fracture Matsui threw the ball back to the infield before gripping his wrist in pain. Matsui had surgery the next day and didn’t return to the starting lineup until September 12. At his first at-bat back he hit an RBI-single, then went 4 for 4 with a walk and 2 runs scored.

Throughout his career Matsui showed an inspiring knack for clutch performances. He hit a grand slam on his 34th birthday on June 12, 2008 while rumors were circulating that the Yankees were considering trading him to the San Francisco Giants for two pitchers. On his 35th birthday he hit a three-run homer for a 7-6 lead over the Mets in the 6th inning. On July 20 his walk-off solo homer with one out in the bottom of the ninth gave the Yankees a tie for 1st place with the Boston Red Sox. On August 21 Matsui touched twice and drove in seven runs in the Yankees’ 20-11 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Matsui became the first Yankee to drive in seven runs at Fenway since Lou Gehrig in 1930. Just two games later Matsui hit two home runs for the third time in seven games. On September 19 he broke Don Baylor’s record for single season home runs by a Yankees designated hitter with his 26th home run.

A few days later Matsui suffered intense knee pain that put him on the disabled list. He returned on August 19 as the everyday designated hitter, but ended the season with knee surgery.

The greatest of Matsui’s clutch performances came in the 2009 World Series when Matsui seemed to single-handedly power the Yankees win over the defending champions with 3 home runs and 8 RBI. His 6 RBIs in Game 6 tied the World Series record, justly winning him the World Series MVP Award. He is the first player to win it as a full-time designated hitter in the Series. He is also the third player in Major League history, with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to bat .500 or above and hit 3 home runs in the same World Series.

Despite all that glory Matsui’s seven years with the Yankees ended on a sour note. He said he “loved the Yankees the best” but that he felt unwanted when his agent called to negotiate, and “the Yankees had nothing prepared.” He lost no time signing with the Angels. One sweetener was that the Angels were willing to give him a shot at fielding.

Matsui showed his tiger generosity when the Indian Ocean quake hit in 2004. He donated $500,000 to victim-relief efforts. Matsui was hushhush about his marriage in a private ceremony in New York, only revealing it to the press after the fact. He didn’t even disclose his wife’s name. It came out that she was 25 and had worked at a “reputable position at a highly respected company”. They had met in Japan after the 2006 off-season. Matsui resides in the West Side of Manhattan in New York City at Trump Place. After having played in the U.S. for seven seasons, Matsui still relies on his translator.

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