By Howard Goldin
BRONX, NEW YORK, JULY 29- The two most prestigious position players to come from Japan to the major leagues are Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the two superstars came to wear the Yankees pinstripes. Suzuki and pitcher Hiroki Kuroda are integral parts of the 2013 Yankees, but an icon of the recent past, Matsui, was at the center of attention at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Matsui began his professional baseball career in his native land by signing with the Yomiuri Giants after earning great prestige as a high school player. He received numerous honors in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) in his 10 years with the Giants. Among his awards were: three-time MVP in the Central League, Japan Games MVP, All-Star in each of his last nine seasons and an MVP in three NPB All-Star Games.
Having achieved so much in his decade in the NPB, Matsui signed a contract with the New York Yankees on December 9, 2002 to play on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Of that day, he reflected in his pre-game press conference on Sunday, “That was probably the greatest moment in my career.”
Matsui lived up to the advance build-up in his first game as a Yankee. He singled in his first MLB at bat and blasted a grand slam homer later in the contest. He and current Yankee Ichiro Suzuki, by their professionalism and exceptional talent, raised the respect for the level of Japanese baseball in the eyes of American fans.
Matsui, as a Yankee, continued to play at the same level as he had in Japan. He was an American League All-Star in his first two years, 2003 and 2004. He left Japan holding a consecutive game streak of 1,250 and played in his first 518 games with the Yankees. Only a fractured left wrist suffered in the outfield ended his streak.
The Japanese superstar concluded his seventh and final season in New York much as he began his first. He drove in six runs in the concluding sixth game of the 2009 World Series and ended his Yankee tenure as the World Series MVP.
Matsui’s final three seasons in the majors were disappointing contrasted with his success as a Yankee. On December 27, 2012, he announced his retirement as a player. A large retirement ceremony was held at the Tokyo Dome on May 5, 2013.
Matsui’s parents and brother were present at the tasteful ceremony held at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. At a pre-game press conference, the former Yankee outfielder signed a minor league contract with the Yankees. On the field, he signed his voluntary retirement papers, so he could officially end his playing career with New York. Yankee captain Derek Jeter, on behalf of the organization, presented a matted, framed 2009 #55 jersey to Matsui. The two were then joined on the field by the members of the 2013 Yankees.
The Yankee icon spoke very strongly of his years as a Yankee. “I’ve always aspired to be a New York Yankee.” His most memorable moments in pinstripes were “winning the World Series in 2009 and the ALCS in 2003.” That response was not surprising to hear from a man who also said, “All I really focused on was trying to win the World Series here. If the fans took something from that it was an honor.” Of his retirement as a Yankee, he proclaimed, “I’m so humbled and honored to retire as a Yankee. There’s nothing more fulfilling than that. I think that moment I will never forget.”
P.S.-The good feeling in Yankee Stadium generated by the presence of Matsui continued during the game between the Yanks and Rays. Matsui’s countryman, Suzuki, brought great joy to the large percentage of Japanese fans in the park by hitting successfully four times in four trips to the plate. Derek Jeter, his teammate for all seven years with the Yankees, homered on the first pitch he saw. Yet, when asked about the homer, the classy captain responded, “This is Matsui’s day. The focus should be on him. I’m happy I was able to be here for his game,” The walk-off single that won the game for the Yankees was hit by Alfonso Soriano, a teammate of Matsui in 2003, in his third game back with the Yankees.