Sometimes the gesture seems futile, sometimes not. The least the Yankees could have done for one of their best-liked and most productive players was to sign him for a day and let him retire as a ‘Striper. Which is exactly what they did with Hideki Matsui Saturday—on a day his old teammate and friend Derek Jeter returned from the disabled list with a Matsui-like bang, hitting the first major league pitch he’s seen all season over the right field fence.
Jeter handed Matsui a framed number 55 Yankee uniform, the Yankee Stadium faithful clutched Matsui bobbleheads or wore variations of his uniform, and general manager Brian Cashman praised Matsui effusively. “Hideki represents everything the Yankees aspire to be and that’s a credit to his family and his country,” he said. “We’re very thankful that you were here as a Yankee as well. This day is a proud one for us because we have a chance to retire Hideki as a New York Yankee.”
The feeling was mutual. “I think this moment will be a moment I never forget,” said Matsui before the game against Toronto, through his interpreter. to the game. “To be able to retire as a member of the team which I aspired to and I looked up to, I think there’s nothing more fulfilling.”
But it was Jeter’s comment that proves the most revelatory:
He came here and was supposed to be this Godzilla that hits home runs, but he was a situational hitter. Matsui moved runners when he had to move them, he got big hits, he drove guys in, he wanted to play every day. The biggest thing–he never made excuses. Never heard him talk about any injuries, which I appreciate, he would play or he didn’t play. I enjoyed getting to know him throughout the years. He’s always been one of my favorite teammates and always will be.
Matsui could have talked about injuries with authority. From almost the moment he arrived with the Yankees after a distinguished career in his native Japan, Matsui looked to be on the Hall of Fame track. Then he suffered a fractured wrist after 55 games in 2006. Including his years playing in Japan, Matsui had played in 1,768 straight games.
His home runs were prodigious enough, he was good for averaging 186 runs produced per 162 games, but you have to wonder whether the injuries didn’t take too much of a toll on him. He missed two thirds of 2006 and almost half of 2008 with injuries. While it didn’t stop him from continuing his periodic heroics—especially those six runs batted in in Game Six of the 2009 World Series, including his two-run homer off Pedro Martinez (a late-life Phillie) in the second inning, and his eight ribs all Series long to go with his .615 Series batting average, a near-no-questions-asked Series MVP—it might have kept him from posting the numbers enough to punch a ticket to Cooperstown.
The Yankees let him walk as a free agent to the Los Angeles Angels after that Series, even though he had some game left. He played well enough for the Angels, mostly as a designated hitter (he’d done nothing but in his final Yankee season), but when he moved on to Oakland the following season it became a little more clear that his clock was about to run out of battery. Last season, Tampa Bay released him in August and he retired formally in December.
He lived and played controversy free, which some thing is something between difficult and impossible for Yankees with or without George Steinbrenner. He was self-effacing, put in his work, did his job, enjoyed friendly relations with fans, and seemed to have tastes for everything except making back page headlines for reasons having nothing to do with his bat or his glove. He was probably more of Joe McCarthy’s kind of Yankee than George Steinbrenner’s.
Like many Japanese players who make the migration to the American Show, Matsui got a late enough start in the U.S. (He may have been robbed of a Rookie of the Year award because a few writers objected to his age in considering their votes, foolishly.) An earlier start plus a lack of injuries might have put him into Cooperstown, where he’d be awaiting the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki.
But to paraphrase Bill James, who once said something similar to Gil McDougald, Matsui wasn’t born to be a Hall of Famer. He was, when all was said and done, born to be a Yankee.
“I think,” he said when spying the first of the number 55s in the stands Sunday, “it will be a combination of nostalgia and joy when I see those fans wearing No. 55 perhaps. At the same time I will be kind of impressed that they never threw it away and kept it.”
The Yankees once threw Matsui away, and right after he’d helped them nail a World Series to boot. But they did the right thing and brought him back, for one ceremonial day, to send him to the rest of his life with the ‘Stripes on his back. Where they never stopped belonging.