When Hideki Matsui came to America — to New York, to the Yankees — it was a Very Big Deal. When he announced his decision to become an international free agent and test the U.S. market in November of 2002, Ken Belson of The Times piled on the praise. Matsui was Japan’s “most popular and perhaps most talented player,” and it pained him to leave almost as much as it pained the fans who gave the nickname Godzilla to see him go.
”I tried to tell myself I needed to stay here for the prosperity of Japanese baseball,” he said at the time ”but in the end I decided to go with what my gut said. I will do my best there so the [Japanese] fans will be glad I went.” Clearly, Hideki has not disappointed.
From the get-go, the Yankees wanted Matsui. Before he even had a chance to declare free agency, before the Angels and Giants wrapped up their seven-game World Series, the Yankees were rumored to be interested in Matsui. Godzilla, just 28 at the time, had just finished a season for the ages. He hit 50 home runs, drove in 107 and flashed a batting line of .334/.461/.692. No wonder the Yanks, looking for some stability in the outfield and a bat to fill the hole left a year earlier by Paul O’Neill’s retirement, coveted the slugger.
By December, as has happened so many times since, the Yankees got their guy. The Yankees outbid the Orioles and Mets to land Matsui to a three-year, $21-million deal. Today, it sounds like a fleecing. For the Yankees, the investment represented their first in Japan since the glory days of Hideki Irabu, and the team was looking forward to the arrival of their Japanese slugger.
In his first game at Yankee Stadium, Hideki Matsui did not disappoint. On a 35-degree day in mid-April and with the Twins in town, the Yanks had built up a 3-1 lead when Matsui stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. Godzilla crushed a pitch into the right field bleachers for his first career Major League home a run — a grand slam to boot. “That was the greatest moment I ever had,” Matsui said after the game.
The rest of the year would be an up-and-down one for the slugger. Matsui played in every game and hit .287/.353/.435 on the season but launched just 16 home runs. Where, Yankee fans wondered, was the famed Godzilla power? It would return in a big way the next season when Matsui had his best year in pinstripes. He hit .298/.390/.522 with a career high 31 home runs and tried his best to beat the Red Sox in that famed ALCS.
After the 2005 season, the Yankees and Matsui rushed to reach an agreement on a contract extension. As part of the original three-year deal that brought Matsui to the States, the Yanks promised to non-tender him if they could not agree on a new contract in 2005. Just hours before the deadline, Matsui reupped with the Yanks for four years at $13 million a year.
Unfortunately for the Yanks, the new contract started out with an injury. On May 11, in a game against the Red Sox, Matsui tried to make a sliding catch and ended up shattering his wrist. He would miss four months of the year. It was his first stint on the DL during his professional career. The next three years were uneven ones for Hideki. He missed significant time in 2008 with knee problems, but when he was healthy, he could hit with the best of them.
For his Yankee career, Matsui was every bit as good as advertised. Despite missing time over the last three season, he heads west with a career batting line of .292/.370/.482 and a career OPS+ of 124. In 56 playoff games with the Yanks, he hit .312/.391/.541, and Yankee fans will forever remember his effort in the 2009 World Series. The three home runs in 13 at-bats, the eight RBIs, the decisive blows against Pedro Martinez will all live in Yankee lore.
As Matsui heads to Anaheim, reports Ken Belson, the Japanese presence will start to recede from the Bronx. For me, though, it’s more personal. He was a quiet and steady presence on the Yanks who always seemed to come through, and I’ll really miss the guy. He was a stalwart on the Yankees during a World Series drought, and it was fitting that he was the one to take home the MVP award and bring that title to the Bronx in his last season here. I had always figured he would leave after this season, and I’m glad he did it while going out on top. Even as he joins the hated Angels, I’ll be pulling for him, good old Number 55, the former left fielder-turned-designated hitter, Hideki Matsui, Number 55.