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Sweeny: Hideki Matsui, Goodbye And Good Luck In Retirement

Hideki Matsui after the Yankees clinched the 2009 World Series. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Hideki Matsui after the Yankees clinched the 2009 World Series. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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By Sweeny Murti
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Hideki Matsui announced his retirement Thursday. I went back to find what I had written about him after the 2009 season, his last as a Yankee. It still seemed fitting enough, so I’d like to share those words here with you again:

I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the privilege of covering a player like Hideki Matsui again. The word “unique” is thrown around too much, but this was indeed a unique experience, right from Day One.

In January 2003 Matsui was introduced to New York at a massive press conference at the Marriott Marquis (most new player press conferences were held in a modest room in the basement of Yankee Stadium). The scene was more fitting of a Beatle than it was a baseball player.

When spring training started a month later, it was another crazy scene as cameras were strung foul line to foul line for Matsui’s first batting practice session of the spring, beaming it back live to Japan in the middle of the night, and dozens of reporters furiously scribbling notes on every swing. Of batting practice!

The throng of reporters dwindled a bit over the years, but it was still an amazingly large number to cover just one man. And Matsui handled it with grace that is unmatched by any athlete I have ever seen.

Every day a few dozen reporters shadowed Matsui’s every move from the time he arrived at the ballpark to the time he took the field to stretch and take batting practice and then finally the game itself. After every game Matsui was surrounded by the same group and answered questions about the game, his at-bats, etc. And I mean, every game.

Most times stars like Derek Jeter or David Wright are expected to speak for the team, win or lose. But there are days when they are rather inconsequential to the story of the game and can go home without being bothered for comment. That never happened with Matsui.

Every day Matsui earnestly answered questions from a gang of reporters that kept such intricate records that any one of them could break down every Matsui at-bat by count and pitch selection. Matsui answered questions every day, win or lose, whether he went 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, and in fact whether he played or not.

There are athletes that get their share of media attention, but even Michael Jordan in his prime didn’t get the same kind of attention. In fact, Robin Ventura was the Yanks’ third baseman during Matsui’s first spring training in 2003 and he was the White Sox third baseman during Jordan’s spring training experiment in 1994. Ventura told me at the time that it was no contest; the media attention paid to Matsui was easily more of a spectacle.

And when the English-speaking media needed some time too, Matsui always politely obliged. In fact, that first spring in 2003 Matsui took the beat reporters out to dinner in Tampa in a get-to-know-you session. We enjoyed and appreciated the gesture so much that we returned it the following spring by taking Matsui to dinner. Over the years, it became our own rite of spring, a casual dinner with Matsui to signal the start of a new season. For those who don’t know, this is maybe the best example of how different a star Matsui is. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have never invited the media group to dine with them.

Matsui’s English was limited. He used a translator (the very able Rogelio “Roger” Kahlon) for all seven of his years as a Yankee. Still, Matsui was comfortable enough to have brief, cordial conversations (“Hi, Hideki…how are you? Fine, Sweeny…how are you?) That’s more than I get from some players who speak perfect English.

And even though it wasn’t always easy to break through the language barrier, Matsui had as fine a sense of humor as anyone. I recall the day in 2004 when I asked his opinion of the rookie-hazing costumes. At that moment, Ruben Sierra walked by both of us wearing one of his typically loud suits complete with fedora, which prompted Matsui to turn to me and ask, “Is he rookie?” As I started to howl with laughter Matsui followed up with, “Every day he’s rookie!”

Matsui also felt a sense of honor that was hard to ignore. In 2006 when Matsui broke his wrist making a sliding play in the outfield, he issued a statement apologizing for the injury because he felt he “let my teammates down.” This guy was apologizing for getting hurt and not being able to play. And this was from a guy who played on the same team as Carl Pavano.

Matsui’s Yankee legacy will be that he was an extremely professional hitter, a clutch hitter who saved his best for last, 6 RBIs in the World Series clincher to take home the MVP trophy. And his nickname, Godzilla, is wholly ironic, for there is nothing about his personality or work ethic that suggests a fire-breathing monster. He was just a model Yankee from the first day, literally to the last.

It is nearly impossible to demonstrate how impressive it was to see a man move half way around the world and not only become the first successful power hitter from Japan, but do it in New York for the Yankees, in a place where greater players have come and failed. We often say there will never be another Derek Jeter or another Mariano Rivera. He’s not in same Hall of Fame level as those two, but Matsui is much more. He is in an elite class all by himself, simply the most unique athlete I have ever known.

And here are the words from the Yankee hierarchy on Thursday as Matsui announced his retirement:

STATEMENT FROM YANKEES MANAGING GENERAL PARTNER HAL STEINBRENNER

“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. 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.”

STATEMENT FROM YANKEES GENERAL MANAGER BRIAN CASHMAN

“Hideki is proof that baseball is an international attraction that brings people from all over the world together in their passion for the game. He was the type of player and person you want young fans of this game to emulate. He played with pride, discipline and of course talent, and flourished when the lights were at their brightest. People naturally gravitated towards him, and that’s a direct reflection of his character. He was a true professional in every sense of the word and it feels good knowing he was able to raise the championship trophy as a member of the Yankees.”

STATEMENT FROM YANKEES SHORTSTOP DEREK JETER (Matsui’s teammate from 2003-09)

“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. 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.”

What’s your favorite Matsui moment? Let Sweeny know in the comments…