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Keidel: Modest Matsui Returns To Japan, But He Won’t Be Forgotten

Hideki Matsui (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Hideki Matsui (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
» More Columns

With the kaleidoscope of holidays and the pyrotechnic Jets consuming our attention lately, we quietly lost someone who should have been cheered louder than any Ryan Seacrest celebration, with Jenny McCarthy turning Times Square into her personal Grotto with some random sailor.

Hideki Matsui hung up his cleats, sans the televised sound and fury we expect from our domestic stars, reared on ritualistic excess.

Every generation swears to swerve from the prior generation, the one that still has its mail forwarded to the “Good Old Days” and bemoans the current cadre of punks who have ruined sports, if not society.

I’m guilty of some of that. But if you take a wide lens to sports you’ll see all is not lost. Matsui is Exhibit A. In the era of groin-grabbing histrionics after two points, of me-first mantras from men who haven’t won anything, Matsui handled himself with the innate decency that certainly smells of another time, if not another place. Indeed, someone with his modest mien almost certainly had to be imported.

Matsui, branded by his brethren as “Godzilla” — with his bat presumably wielding the ancient reptile’s tail — swung his way into our hearts rather quickly, with a grand slam in his first game in pinstripes. And he was equally clutch for years to come, a prerequisite in the biting, Big Apple crucible.

We can gloss over the stats — .282 lifetime batting average with 175 homers in 10 seasons — but just like a stat sheet, it doesn’t cover the man who always let his play speak for him. Even after his biggest games, when he clearly understood the questions, he shyly deferred to an interpreter to translate his feelings.

It’s quite fitting that Matsui ended his career with an epic World Series in 2009, hitting .615 with three homers, joining pinstriped godfathers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the only players at the time to hit for so high an average with at least three round-trippers. And then he was unceremoniously released, never offered a contract by the cold, corporate suits at Yankee Stadium, a team that used to honor its heroes with unparalleled pomp.

Maybe a Yankeeography is in the chute.

Perhaps my favorite Matsui memory was from his rookie season — even if he was already old by athletic standards — when he hopped high in the October air after sliding home on Jorge Posada’s bloop double in the classic Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. It was a rare flash of emotion, but just like everything he did, he did it just right in the context of the team and the time.

Why speak on this a week after it happens, when a story six-hours old gathers online dust? Because it’s too redundant to rip the Jets, Rex Ryan’s tattoo and the newfound vow of silence from a franchise whose ancient Omerta is volume.

Matsui was given a proper eulogy from perhaps the only Yankee qualified to quantify his dignity. Derek Jeter lauded Matsui for playing so well, so often, under the blinding flashbulbs and cult-like following from two continents. He arrived in New York hounded, but not haunted, by a Japanese paparazzi whose heartbeat was commensurate to his batting average.

Matsui will never be regarded with the eternal fondness of the Core Four, or the other essential Yankees from the Joe Torre dynasty.

He arrived just a little late to enjoy the spoils of the 1990s. But one could easily argue that that was the only time his timing was ever off.

Feel free to email me at keidel.jason@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

They don’t come much classier than Hideki Matsui. Leave your favorite memories of “Godzilla” in the comments section below…