HIDEKI MATSUI: HIS CAREER IN JAPAN AND THE MAJORS AND WORLD SERIES MVP

HIDEKI MATSUI

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Hideki Matsui is another Japanese player who has a great impact on the U.S. Major Leagues. Known as Godzilla, he is 6'2" tall and weighs 210 pounds and has one the largest heads of any player in both the Japan and Major Leagues. He said he got his nickname Godzilla “because I look so scary.” [Source: Charles P. Pierce, Sports Illustrated, July 2003]

Throughout his careers Matsui has been known for keeping his cool, composure and cheerfulness. This and his baseball skills have made hom not only the most popular baseball players in Japan but also one the most popular people. A former prime minister was once head of his fan club. A mayor in his hometown has called his home run hitting “an act of god.”

Matsui had a .285 average and a .363 on-base percentage in the majors. He had 175 homers and 760 RBIs for the Yankees, Angels, Oakland Athletics and Rays. In Japan he had a .304 career average with 332 homers and 889 RBIs in 1,268 games.

Matsui is so popular his face has appeared on everything from tea cups to the fuselage of a 747. His favorite anime series (Gundam) and pornography have been analyzed and scrutinized for details into his personality. The New York Daily News has reported that Matsui has an extensive adult DVD and video collection and once threatened to strip "here nude" if the Giants didn’t win the pennant.

Anything with Matsui’s on it is worth big money. Balls with his autograph sel for $500 a piece, more than any other Yankee player. When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with U.S. President George Bush in Texas, Matsui was one of the main topics of dinner conversation. There is already a museum dedicated to him in his hometown of Komatsu, near Kanazawa on the coast of Sea of Japan. It is located next to Matsui family house and is run by Matsui’s father.

In the public Matsui is quiet and self-deprecating. In private people say he is a genuinely nice guy. When he was in middle school Matsui reportedly promised his father that he would never say anything bad about another person and as far as anyone knows he has fulfilled that pledge. Matsui is also known for his generosity. He donated $450,000 to victims of he Asian tsunami. There is also a story about him giving the money he earned from an All-Star game to for a young girl’s heart operation.

Book: Hideki Matsui by Shizuka Ijuin (Ballantine 2007)

Matsui in Japan

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Matsui with the Giants
Matsui played right fielder for the Yomiuri Giants. Regarded as Japan’s best slugger, he was voted MVP three times and was a Japan all-star in 9 out of 10 seasons he played. He helped the Giants win three Japan Series and had a .304 career average in Japan with 332 home runs and 889 RBIs in 1,268 games. In his least year in Japan, 2002, he hit .334 with 50 home runs and 107 RBIs.

Matsui was drafted in 1993 when he was 18. By that time he was already famous. When he was in high school 55,000 people came to see him in a championship game and the opposing team was so afraid of his slugging ability the was intentionally walked him every time he came to bat.

Matsui’s father Masao told AP: “I never pressured him to play baseball. It was his dream from a very young age to a professional player.” Matsui father had satellite dish installed in the family house so Matsui could watch the Major League games when he was young.

Matsui never takes a practice swing once he’s in the batter’s box as if to save his energy for his real hits.

Matsui played 1,250 consecutive games with the Yomiuri Giants from 1994 to 2002. To keep him from jumping to the Major League he signed the richest deal ever in Japan---$5.6 million for one year---in 2001. He earned ¥610 million, the highest of any player, in 2002.

Matsui with The Yankees

Howie Rumberg of Associated Press wrote: Nicknamed Godzilla, Matsui was already perhaps the most popular player of his generation in Japan when he signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees. While Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki appeared to shy away from the attention, Matsui walked right into the spotlight and embraced the scrutiny. Playing for the Yankees was, "one of the best things that happened to him in his life," the Japanese reporter quoted Matsui as saying. [Source: Howie Rumberg, Associated Press, December 28, 2012]

No. 55 was a monster for New York, too. Always cool under pressure, Matsui hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium and matched a World Series record with six RBIs in his pinstripe finale seven years later---during the clinching Game 6 of the 2009 Series. "I've had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "Despite being shadowed by a large group of reporters, having the pressures of performing for his fans both in New York and Japan and becoming acclimated to the bright lights of New York City, he always remained focused and committed to his job and to those of us he shared the clubhouse with. I have a lot of respect for Hideki.” [Ibid]

In his career with New York, Matsui made two All-Star teams and hit .292 with 140 doubles and 597 RBIs. He played in his first 518 major league games after playing in 1,250 straight games in Japan. In his first remarks after breaking his wrist and ending that streak in 2006, he apologized for getting hurt. Matsui returned four months later and went 4 for 4. [Ibid]

"Hideki Matsui, in many ways, embodied what this organization stands for. He was dedicated to his craft, embraced his responsibilities to his team and fans, and elevated his play when he was needed the most," Yankees general managing partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "He did all these things with a humility that was distinctly his own, which is why he was such a big part of our success and why he will always be a cherished member of the Yankees family.” [Ibid]

Matsui said he first started thinking about the Yankees when he became a professional and his manager with the Giants told him to aspire to be a player like former New York center fielder Joe DiMaggio. Then in 1999---three years from free agency---Matsui went to Yankee Stadium to watch a game and was "astonished" at the level of play. He thought to himself that he would "like to become a player that would be capable of playing at Yankee Stadium," the reporter translated. [Ibid]

Matsui arrived in New York after a season in which he hit 50 homers for the most well-known team in Japan, and fit right in. "Hideki came to the Yankees as a superstar and immediately became a team favorite. Not only for his talent but for the unselfishness he brought to the game every day," said MLB executive vice president for baseball operations Joe Torre, who was Matsui's manager for his first five seasons in New York. "Hideki Matsui is a winner and I was proud to be his manager.” [Ibid]

Matsuimania in New York

Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees starting in 2003. Over 400 reporters showed up at the press conference in which the decision was announced. It was one of the largest press conference in sports history. Matsui turned down a four-year, $30 million offer from the Yomiuri Giants. The Orioles, Red Sox and Mets also expressed interest in Matsui, who turned them down because he was determined to play for the Yankees.

When Matsui arrived in New York the first thing Matsui did was not visit Yankee Stadium or seek out a trendy restaurant or sushi bar. Instead he went to Ground Zero, staying at what remained of the Wold Trade Center for more than hour in the snow.

Matsui played left field with the Yankees. He was not the home run slugger the Yankees expected him to be but he turned to be a good fielder, good RBI hitter and an outstanding clutch hitter, often seeming to come through when his team needed him most.

The Yankees opened the 2004 season in Tokyo by playing the Florida Devil Rays. It was the first the time the Yankees had played outside the United States since 1955.

Yankee coach Joe Torre said, “He knows what to do...When he has a man in scoring position, he has a plan and he certainly stays with a plan. There’s really no pitch that I can see that gives him trouble continuously. He seems to think along with the pitcher...He’s not someone who’s going to knock the walls down. But he’s very efficient in the way he plays the game overall.”

Matsui came up four points short in the closest ever Rookie of the Year award in 2003. He was beat out by Kansas City shortstop Angel Berra. Many sport writers who voted didn’t vote for Matsui because they considered him to be too old to be a true rookie. Matsui was a starter in the All Star game. He played left field and Ichiro was in right field.

Matsui played seven seasons with the Yankees. He was paid $54 million during his first four seasons with the team. He got over 100 RBIs in four seasons.

Matsui’s Early Seasons with the Yankees

Matsui had a dramatic debut at Yankee stadium in 2003. He hit a grand slam home run in a game that had a delayed start because of snow. But after that he seemed to have trouble with American pitching. In May, he hit more ground ball outs (118) than any other Major League player and was criticized in public by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who said, “Matsui’s lack of power is disappointing. This not the man we signed a contact for.” He came on strong in June, July and September and had a great year.

Matsui led the Yankees in RBIs and came through with key hits in key situations and finished the 2003 season with 106 RBIs, 16 home runs and a batting average of .287. He also played well in the post season. In the third game of the American League Division series against the Minnesota Twins he hit a game winning home run.

In his first three seasons Matsui averaged 23 home runs, 110 RBIs and had a batting average of .297. Perhaps his greatest moment was in the 2003 playoff against the Red Sox to reach the World Series. Matsui was key to the Yankee’s comeback 6-5 victory over Boston to win the American League Championship. In a rare display of emotion, Matsui let out a loud scream and jumped down on home plate when he scored the tying run. He then went on to became the first Japanese player to hit a home run in the World Series.

Matsui and the Media

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The coverage of Matsui by the Japanese media was almost as amazing as Matsui playing. He was followed by an army of 80 or so reporters and cameraman who reported on his every move. Sometimes during the evening news sports broadcast it seemed that every pitch that was thrown to him was shown and analyzed and everything that happened to the Yankees or the Major Leagues was discussed in terms of how it related to him.

Most of the reporters who followed Matsui did so as a full time job. Leaving their families behind in Japan, they followed Matsui, almost year round from his first appearances at spring training in January through post season play in October. Their newspapers paid for their $3,000 a month apartments in Manhattan. Many of them were smokers and one of their greatest hardships was the no smoking rules at Yankee stadium. In the American media, they become a story themselves. At height of Matsui’s impressive start they were interviewed almost as much by American reporters and as they interviewed Matsui.

Despite all the pressure and hassle, Matsui made himself available to the media everyday regardless of whether he performed well or not, and went out his way to have friendly relations with press, sometimes taking the whole army out to dinner at spring training. One Japanese reporter told Sports Illustrated, “There are probably too many of us. But he has never complained. When he is 0 for 5, when he makes two errors, when he hits a home run, he talks to us. That makes everyone’s job so much easier. The most surprising thing is that he talks to us every day.”

Matsui in 2005 through 2008

In 2004 Matsui hit .298 with 31 homes runs and 108 RBIs. In 2005, he had a Major League career high .305 batting average with 23 homes runs and 116 RBIs. In November 2005, he agreed to $52 million, four-year contact with the Yankees, which at the time made him the highest paid Japanese player in the Major League. Before that he had a $21 million, three-year contract.

In late 2005 there were rumors that Matsui was going to marry the Japanese actress Naho Toda. Matsui said the two were close but no marriage took place.

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Matsui ad poster
Matsui didn’t play in 2006 World Baseball Classic. In May 2006, Matsui broke his wrist while trying to make aa sliding catch in a game against the Red Sox. The replay was shown hundreds of times in Japan and was painful to watch. Matsui missed more than half the season. The injury brought to an end his streak of 518 consecutive game appearances in the in the Major League and his streak of 1,768 consecutive game appearances in the in Japan League and the Major League . After the injury, in typical Japanese fashion, Matsui apologized to his team for getting hurt. “I feel very sorry and at the same time very disappointed to have let my team mates down,” he said after undergoing surgery. On his return after four months he received a standing ovation and went 4 for 4.

In August 2007, Matsui hit his 100th Major League home run. On getting two home runs in game batting after Alex Rodriguez, Matsui said “There wasn’t big pressure in my at bats. Everybody was in the bathroom.” Matsui suffered from problems with his left knee and underwent knee surgery after the 2007 season. He missed large chunks of the season. When he did play he mainly was used as a designate hitter. There was some discussion that the Yankee would hire Barry Bonds to take his place.

In 2008 Matsui had knee problems. He played in just 98 games, batting .294, with eight home runs. In 2009, he was the designated hitter and clean up hitter for the Yankees at the start of the season but was moved down the line to seventh. His knees had not healed enough to allow him to play outfield. Since the Yankees are rich in talent at designated hitter there es some speculation that Matsui might be traded

Matsui skipped the first WBC but wanted to play in the second one but couldn’t because of concerns about his knee.

Matsui batted .274, slammed 28 home runs and drove in 60 runs in 2009. In August Matsui had a career high 7 RBIs in a the Yankees 20-11 victory over the Red Sox.

Matsui in the 2009 World Series

Matsui was the hero of game six in the 2009 World Series---the game which gave the Yankees the championship---and was named series MVP. In the game he homered and drove in six runs, tying a Series record, in the Yankees 7-3 victory of the Philadelphia Phillies. He was the first Japanese to be World Series MVP and tied the record for achieving the honor with the fewest number of at bats. He only started three games. In the other three games he only appeared once each game as pinch hitter and ended the series with only 13 total at bats.

Matsui singled, doubled and hit a home run in game six. He hit the home run in second inning off the great former Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, smashing a two strike pitch that was out of the strike zone between his knees and the dirt, sending the ball banging off an advertising sign on the second deck. He then went on to hit a two-run single in the third inning and a two-run double off the right-center wall in the fifth. The only other time someone fit six RBIs in a World Series game was when Barry Richardson did in 1960 but he didn’t do it in the final game to seal the Series like Matsu did.

In the entire World Series Matsu batted .615 and had three homers and eight RBIs. After the last game he said, “It’s awesome. Unbelievable. I’m surprised myself.” When asked about winning the Japan Series and World Series he said, “I guess its hard to make a comparison. When I was in Japan that was the ultimate goal. Being here, winning the World Series becoming world champions, that what you strive for.”

Yankee manager Joe Giardi said, “He has been a clutch player ever since I’ve known him.” Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira said, “Oh my goodness, You can’t say enough about Matsui all year, The biggest game of the year, unbelievable. I haven’t seen a guy hit like that in the World Series.”

When Matsui came t bat in the seventh inning, the crowd gave him a standing ovation and chanted “MVP! MVP! MVP!” On how that felt Matsui said, “You could say that I guess this is the best moment of my life right now. It’s been a long road and very difficult journey.” The game turned out to be his last as a Yankee.

Matsui After the Yankees

Matsui hit 21 homers for the Los Angeles Angels in 2010 after New York didn't offer him a new contract, but his numbers fell off considerably after that. He hit .251 with 12 homers for the A's in 2011 and slumped to .147 (14 for 95) with the Rays in 37 games before being released. The Yankees had considered picking Matsui after the Oakland Athletics failed to make him an offer over the winter.

In November 2009, Matsui signed a one-year, $6.5 million contract to play with the Los Angeles Angels. One of his hopes was to return as a full time outfielder. He liked playing with the Yankees but was not so happy about being the designated hitter and not being a position player.

In the season opener in 2010 Matsui belted a homer and a tie-breaking single. He ended the 2010 season with the Angels with a .274 average, 21 homers and 84 RBIs in 145 games. He spent most of the season as the designated hitter and occasionally played left field. The Angels failed to make the payoffs.

At the end of April 2010 Matsui got his 1,000 Major League hit. In early May he got his 1,500th career run, 901 of which were scored in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants. He is sixth Japanese to reach that milestone. Early in the 2011 season Matsui got his 2,500 hits in Japan and the Majors. That number included 977 over seven years with the Yankees and 132 in 2010 with the Angels. He reached the mark by ending a slump and getting his first hit with his new 2011 team the Oakland As.

Matsui signed a 1-year, $4.25 million deal with Oakland for the 2011 season. He played mostly as a designated hitter. After going nearly five weeks without a home run Matsui finally got his professional baseball 500th homer---in Japan and the Major Leagues---in July 2011.

Matsui finished the 2011 season with the A's with a .251 batting average, 12 homers and 72 RBIs in 141 games. "I couldn't contribute to my team," he said at the end of the season. "My numbers are a bit embarrassing. Those are a fair bit lower than the numbers I had in the past, and I didn't help the team win, either."

Matsui Plays Briefly with Tampa Bay Rays in 2012

Matsui played briefly with Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. He got off to a good start but his momentum didn’t carry very long. In May 2012, AP reported: “Matsui made a great first impression in his Tampa Bay debut. Matsui provided all the Rays offense with a two-run homer in Tampa Bay's 7-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox. The Rays purchased the 2009 World Series MVP's contract from Triple-A Durham before the game. "It was nice to hit the home run, but we lost the game," Matsui said through a translator. "Physically I feel fine. So hopefully I can just keep building from here." [Source: AP, May 31, 2012]

In July, AP reported: “Matsui was cut by the Tampa Bay Rays to make room for newcomer Ryan Roberts, who was in the starting lineup against the Orioles. The 38-year-old was designated for assignment. The 2009 World Series MVP for the New York Yankees was batting .147 with two homers and seven RBIs and was hitless in his last 16 trips to the plate. [Ibid]

Rays manager Joe Maddon said he spoke with Matsui and his interpreter. ''He was stoic. He understood the move,'' Maddon said. ''I told him I wanted him to understand from the Rays that we wanted to do what was best for him and be amiable to what he wanted to do.'' [Source: Associated Press, July 25, 2012]

Matsui Retires

In December 2012, Howie Rumberg of Associated Press wrote: Free agent slugger Hideki Matsui retired from professional baseball, saying he is no longer able to perform at the level that made him a star in two countries. The 2009 World Series MVP with the New York Yankees and a three-time Central League MVP with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants struggled in a brief stint with the Tampa Bay Rays last season and recently made up his mind to call it a career after 20 years---the first 10 in Japan. [Source: Howie Rumberg, Associated Press, December 28, 2012]

Despite choosing to make the announcement in New York because the city was special to him, the nearly hour-long news conference was conducted only in Japanese and was broadcast live to his home country, where it was 7 a.m. Friday. A Japanese reporter translated portions of the event for the four American baseball writers in attendance. Before he left for New York in 2003, Matsui told his fans in Japan that he would give his life to playing in the major leagues, give whatever he had, the reporter said. "Today is the day he put a period to that.” [Ibid]

In front of more than 15 cameras and dozens of Japanese reporters, many of whom detailed every aspect of his career in the United States, the outfielder/designated hitter gave a 12-minute speech before answering questions for about 40 minutes more, betraying little emotion except for that sly smile he flashed during his playing days. Matsui was known for being stoic but he also had a sense of humor, and he got a good laugh at the press conference, telling the crowd that he doesn't like to use the word "retirement" because he will play pick-up baseball. [Ibid]

Still, Matsui ruled out competing this year in the World Baseball Classic or joining a team in Japan again. "He was not confident he'd be able to play at the level he played at 10 years ago," the reporter said. In fact, Matsui still has not decided on what to do next. [Ibid]

Matsui Home Run Bay Heads to Hall of Fame

In January 2012, Jiji Press reported: “While the debate has started about whether Hideki Matsui has earned a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, the former New York Yankees slugger will already have a presence at the shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y. The bat that Matsui used to hit his first major league home run in 2003 will be put on display, the website of the Yankees TV network (YES) has reported. [Ibid]

In his first game on April 8, 2003, Matsui became the first Yankee to hit a grand slam in his debut at Yankee Stadium, homering against the Minnesota Twins. Matsui has donated the bat he used to the Hall of Fame. "Thanks for showing America your class, dignity and great ability Matsui," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson wrote on Twitter. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) 5) 8) Japan Zone, 2) Matsui, 3) Japan-Photo.de file sharing 4) 6) 7) 9) 10) 11) 12) 13) Wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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