‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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Ten years ago, the New York Yankees landed iconic Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui.
The buzz coming out of Japan in December 2002 was that the Yankees had captured a tremendous slugger, whose power would translate to the major leagues.
A smaller, more tightly-wound baseball, smaller field dimensions and a narrower strike zone in Nippon Professional Baseball contributed to Matsui twice hitting over 40 home runs and slugging 50 home runs in his final season in Japan.
A Grand Introduction
Matsui’s grand slam in the Yankees’ 2003 home opener against the Minnesota Twins heightened expectations. Immediately, the New York tabloids expected Matsui to challenge Jason Giambi as the Yankees’ home run leader. That would not be the case. Matsui only collected 16 home runs in his debut season in Major League Baseball and some of the tabloid back pages read “Groundzilla.”
While he didn’t crush home runs worthy of his “Godzilla” nickname, Matsui certainly dispelled any notion that Japanese players couldn’t hit for power in the majors. In four of his five first seasons as a Yankee, Matsui drove in over 100 RBIs.
Yankee fans would soon realize that Matsui wasn’t about tape-measure home runs. While he would put up respectable home run and RBI numbers during his seven seasons with the Yankees, it was clear that Matsui was a team player who advanced runners and had a knack for diving in clutch RBIs.
His consistent performance in the Yankees’ advancement to the 2003 World Series proved that Matsui’s best moments were to come under the playoff spotlight. Matsui was one of the few Yankee batters who contributed during their embarrassing curse-reversing ALCS exit to the Boston Red Sox in 2004. He finished with a .412 average, 2 home runs and 10 RBIs in the 2004 ALCS.
As the Yankees’ payroll inflated to monstrous levels, it was clear that the Yankees of the mid 2000s and beyond were teams devoid of the “all for one, one for all” camaraderie of their dynasty years.
One after another, high-priced free agent after high-priced free agent donned the pinstripes. The majority of players brought in through free agency and high-profile trades were mercenaries.
That could not be said about Matsui, who greatly understood the prestige and responsibility of wearing the pinstripes. He would have fit right in with the classy Paul O’Neill-Tino Martinez teams of the late 1990s.
When Matsui joined the Yankees, he just missed out on joining the Bombers during their dynasty years. Instead, he became a player symbolic of the prideful teams of years past by the way he carried himself.
His press following was far greater than any of his more-highly paid and boastful Yankee teammates. Still, he didn’t carry his own entourage from city-to-city or demand rules separate from his teammates. Matsui was an international megastar, but he didn’t act like one. In fact, he was the opposite.
A True “Gamer”
Matsui prided himself on maintaining an incredible consecutive games played streak of 1,768 games stretching back to his years in Japan. This continued until a devastating broken wrist injury ended his streak of 518 consecutive games in the Major Leagues in 2006.
He played with the same fiery dedication of Jeter, O’Neill and Jorge Posada and he had the class of Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera.
We all saw that classy nature when Matsui apologized for the injury and thanked then-manager Joe Torre for allowing his streak to continue to that point.
“Due to this injury, I feel very sorry and, at the same time, very disappointed to have let my teammates down,” Matsui said in a 2006 statement. “I will do my best to fully recover and return to the field to help my team once again.”
Matsui went as far as volunteering his services to work in the Yankees’ offices because he felt shame for not being able to pull on the uniform and contribute on the field.
A Famous World Series Farewell
It was definitely a love-affair between the Matsui and Yankee fans. Matsui would finish his tenure with the Yankees in grand style in the 2009 World Series.
Matsui led the way in capturing the Yankees’ first World Series title since 2000 by batting .615 with with 3 home runs and 8 RBIs in 13 at-bats as the Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games. He not only won the World Series MVP, but became one of only four players in MLB history to hit .500 or greater with three home runs or higher in a World Series.
In the deciding Game 6, Matsui homered in his first at-bat, then drove in two more RBIs off former Red Sox enemy Pedro Martinez. He would finish the clinching game 3-for-4 with an incredible 6 RBIs.
Sadly, it would be his last moment as a Yankee. Matsui was handed his World Series ring when the Los Angeles Angels visited Yankee Stadium on Opening Day in 2010. His former Yankee teammates rushed Matsui on the field and embraced him.
Matsui fit in with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, and he would’ve fit right in with Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill.
“I’ve said it numerous times over the years, but it’s worth repeating now. I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites,” Jeter said.
“The way he went about his business day in and day out was impressive. 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. He was someone we counted on a great deal and he’s a big reason why we became World Champions in 2009.”
It would be difficult to find a Yankee fan who didn’t appreciate the humble service and pride that Matsui brought to the Yankees every day at the ballpark. I’m sure many of which wish Matsui’s career with the Yankees lasted a bit longer after he was ushered out of the Bronx following his 2009 World Series heroics.
The Yankees sure have missed the dignity, class and clutch hitting that Matsui gave them as their underwhelming teams of recent years lack the identity that Matsui helped forge.
How will you remember Matsui’s years in pinstripes? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.