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Matsui praised for impact on baseball

One loyal fan calls him 'the pride of Japan'

Kyodo, AFP-Jiji

Fans in Japan were saddened Friday by the news of power-hitter Hideki Matsui’s retirement from baseball at the age of 38, many wishing he would resume his career in the country.

“If he were to play in Japan, he could still hit 30 to 40 home runs,” longtime fan Toshimitsu Miura, 52, said outside Tokyo’s Shimbashi Station. “It’s Matsui’s policy to do things with class, but it’s so sad.”

A fan in the same age group as Matsui, 36-year-old Yohei Kamamoto remembered watching the “Matsui incident,” when as an overpowering high school slugger, an opposing team walked Matsui five times in a game at the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium.

“This is a man of our generation who has left his mark on history,” Kamamoto said. “He is the pride of Japan.”

A 64-year-old man in Osaka said, “Ichiro (Suzuki) and Matsui continued as the symbols of baseball following the generation of (Sadaharu) Oh and (Shigeo) Nagashima.”

“I was hoping to see ‘Godzilla’ come back and show what he can truly do.”

The Central League’s Hanshin Tigers and the Pacific League’s Softbank Hawks were among the clubs that had some interest in signing Matsui a year ago following his release by the Oakland Athletics.

“Even if it were just for one year, I hoped he would come back and play for Hanshin,” said a 42-year-old woman in Osaka.

Other fans hold out hope that the soft-spoken Matsui will return home to help lead the next generation.

“To people in my generation, Matsui is synonymous with ‘home run hitter’,” said 28-year-old Akira Tanaka, an ardent supporter of the Sapporo-based Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. “Yet, his image is also that of a player who was extremely conscious of doing what was best for his team, who can be relied on to get hits.”

“I hope he can communicate his experiences and expertise to the players of the next generation.”

A two-time All-Star and former World Series MVP with the New York Yankees, Matsui announced his decision to retire from baseball in New York on Thursday.

Some fans hoped the 38-year-old outfielder would remain in the game and one day manage the hugely popular Yomiuri Giants — his club for his first 10 professional years before a high-profile move to Major League Baseball.

“Thank you, glorious Godzilla,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said in its evening edition hours after Matsui, named after the world-famous Japanese movie monster, bade farewell at a news conference in New York.

“Japanese and American fans who watched his dynamic play are all filled with sadness,” the mass-circulation daily said.

“Hitting a total 507 home runs while loved in Japan, U.S.,” read a headline in the Mainichi Shimbun.

Matsui, who played for three different clubs over the last three seasons after becoming the MVP of the 2009 World Series with the Yankees, said he had not been able to produce good results in the past two years due to nagging knee problems.

“I felt it was the end of a great Matsui era,” said Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, who used Matsui as the key fourth batter in 2002 during his first stint in the post.

The Giants won the Japan Series title that year and Matsui left for the Yankees the next season. The Tokyo team also won the title in 2012 under Hara.

“I was stunned by his very strong will, sturdy body and unmatched power,” said Hara, who was in his last year as a player when Matsui joined the team in 1993. “He grew up quickly from his first year.”

Hara, 54, said he had always considered Matsui as an “old boy” of the Giants.

“I believe he wishes to work himself to the bone for the development of Japanese baseball,” he said. “I believe he has a strong feeling particularly toward the Giants.”

Giants owner Kojiro Shiraishi said he would “back up” Matsui if he had plans to study the sport’s management and contribute to Japan’s baseball world.

The daily Nikkan Sports, devoting four pages — including the front — to Matsui in its morning edition which was published before the announcement, said in a headline that he was due to “bring Godzilla II to the Giants.”

It estimated he had earned $84 million in salary over 10 years in the United States, in addition to ¥2.3 billion ($27 million) paid to him by the Giants over 10 years.

Matsui’s father Masao, 70, said his son had “nothing to regret as a baseball player with such good results”.

“I do feel that he has been loved by fans in both the United States and Japan,” said the senior Matsui. “I believe he has a mission to contribute to the baseball world and children.”

Meanwhile, Giants captain Shinnosuke Abe paid tribute to former teammate Matsui on Friday following the slugger’s retirement announcement.

“The first time I saw Matsui, here was this big guy who drove the ball farther than anyone else,” said Abe, who joined the Giants in 2001 and played two years with Matsui. “Towing pro baseball for 20 years I think meant playing under all kinds of heavy pressure.”

“However, he always played quietly, without ever showing any hint of that. He was the epitome of an elite-level athlete.”

Yoshinobu Takahashi, who joined the Giants in 1998, said he considered himself lucky to have played alongside Matsui.

“It was a happy existence being his teammate,” Takahashi said. “Although I learned so many different things just by observing him, recently I sensed this even more. He had all those things, the injuries and so on, yet until the end he was always positive. That really impressed me.”

Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who recently completed a two-year contract extension with the New York club, said, “We have had discussions for many hours in the past, and it was very interesting because my thinking and his are so completely different.”

“After playing for the Yankees, I came to recognize how difficult it must have been to produce the type of results he did. I feel nothing but sorrow that the one player I came to know about as a junior high school student is retiring.”