By Jason Keidel
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The applause was more than perfunctory. Some of you still get it. Hideki Matsui always had it.
The Japanese-born, American-made icon, whose moniker, Godzilla, reflects his heft among his legion of loyalists, from Okinawa to Oakland and, thankfully, New York. Named after the titanic, cinematic monster with his bat presumably wielding the power of the ancient reptile’s tail, Matsui managed to play in the Big Apple without a hint of hubris, anxiety, or aloofness.
He somehow combed his volcanic bat with a serene mien that left us in awe and keenly grateful that he graced the diamond with his decency. His charming, humble smile soothed an otherwise ornery fan base ready to shred any imposter who parachutes into the Bronx for big money and produces small stats, particularly one who doesn’t even speak our language.
Despite the fact that in 2009 he single-handedly won the World Series for the Yankees – his Game 6 performance was the best in the Bronx since Reggie circa ’77 – he was not invited to return to the very place he brought the title.
Rather than pout or protest his way through the off-season, Matsui quietly moved on, signing with the California/Los Angeles/Anaheim/Gene Mauch and Autry Angels, where he delivered a rather respectable season in 2010 (.274, 21 HR, 84 RBI).
Like so many of his predecessors, the elderly athlete who changes uniforms yearly in an eternal attempt to revive the halcyon years, Matsui arrived this weekend wearing an Oakland Athletics jersey, as incongruous as anything other than pinstripes looks on him. But it didn’t stop New Yorkers from providing props to a player who was quiet but a riot in the clutch, representing his team and adopted town with Yankee Pride.
It’s fitting that he filled the box score with hits this series, going 7-for-10 in the final two games (including 5-for-5 yesterday), raising his average from a brutal .221 to a baleful .237. Matsui has hit the year of athletic mortality – 37 – the same age as an aging shortstop for the Yankees. Chris Ballard, who is also 37, recently wrote a fine column for Sports Illustrated about the pivot between great, good, and gone, and how 37 is often the portal to the latter. (He’s allowed to say it, whereas when I make the reasonable and amply factual assertion that Derek Jeter is just about a fraction of his former brilliance I’m called the Antichrist. Such is life, I suppose.)
But back to Matsui, whose bat was as scalding as the hellish summer heat. When he signed with the Yankees in 2003, Matsui played in a cauldron of climates we could hardly handle, or even fathom. He wore the dual caps of New York Yankee and, oddly, the Babe Ruth of his homeland, Japan. During the five seasons in which he played at least 140 games for the Yankees, he hit about .290, averaging 25 HR and 105 RBI. The phalanx of writers (estimated at 60) paid specifically to be de facto Hideki beat reporters, are on his tail 24 hours a day. We, in our perpetual narcissism, assume that simply because he’s not worshipped here he’s not worshipped anywhere. But by most accounts, Matsui is much more important to the Japanese than Ichiro Suzuki – Matsui’s major-league precursor and sure-fire, first-ballot, Hall of Famer. It’s also presumed that the immortal Ichiro is not the nicest man in the world, which only adds to Matsui’s legend.
Matsui always performed on and off the field with a metaphysical elegance and maturity beyond his years, his cadence and countenance disarming even to Yankee haters, while his charming grin seemed symbolic of something he knew and we didn’t. Simply, he got it – a cell structure, programming, wiring…whatever it is…that makes a man fit into any room, no matter the tone or native tongue.
During his Yankee years, he stood nobly by his locker, flanked by his translator, nodding thoughtfully at each question, as though the translator were simply superfluous. He knew English. And he knew New York. How else can you explain the man? Some folks were fitted for the five boroughs and, like talent, it can’t be taught. Ask Willie Randolph – a man seemingly made to manage a New York baseball team, born & raised in NYC, while winning five World Series rings as a Yankee – who proved that just because you’re from our soil doesn’t mean you’ll bloom with some sun and water. Windmill Willie wilted, while a man born four continents away fit like the proverbial snug bug in the rug.
Above all, Hideki Matsui smashes the stereotype about nice guys and their place in the pecking order. He is proof that you can win with class, sans sass, in a language we love. Baseball. Consider his bat a baton of diplomacy, that beyond age and wage we can prosper with proper respect for our craft. The ovation he received this weekend acts as evidence that although America invented the game, a man from Japan puts us to shame. Our slam-dunking, homerun-posing, groin-grabbing posture shrinks in the presence of his prescience. Matsui is what we should be but choose not to be, as though each athletic deed were a dumb pretext for a silly celebration.
Hideki Matsui puts the we in the me generation. Take notes while he’s still teaching.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
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