In 2001 Ichiro Suzuki shattered expectations about what Japanese players could and could not do in Major League Baseball.
Except when it came to hitting for power.
Back then, even with Ichiro tearing it up for the Seattle Mariners, Japanese hitters were looked upon with skepticism and mostly regarded as speedy slap hitters.
Ichiro for all his talents could not, or, if the stories of his batting practice exploits (which have taken on a life of their own) are to be believed, simply would not consistently hit for power.
So that was still the unanswered question in 2003, when former Yomiuri Giants star Hideki Matsui arrived in New York City to play for the Yankees with a pocket full of George Steinbrenner’s money, the moniker “Godzilla” and curious fans in two nations waiting to see if a slugger from Japan could make it big in the majors.
Matsui hit a grand slam off Twins right-hander Joe Mays in his first game at Yankee Stadium and over the next 10 seasons proceeded to show that Japan could indeed produce a MLB-caliber power hitter.
He proved that and more while cementing his place as one of the most important players of his generation during a 20-year career that spanned two countries and came to an end on Thursday, when the Japanese great announced his retirement.
“I’ve said it numerous times over the years, but it’s worth repeating now,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter began in a statement. “I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites. The way he went about his business day in and day out was impressive.
“Despite being shadowed by a large group of reporters, having the pressures of performing for his fans both in New York and Japan and becoming acclimated to the bright lights of New York City, he always remained focused and committed to his job and to those of us he shared the clubhouse with.
“I have a lot of respect for Hideki,” Jeter said. “He was someone we counted on a great deal and he’s a big reason why we became World Champions in 2009.”
Like Ichiro, Matsui changed the perception about Japanese position players, and helped to further clear the path from NPB to MLB for current and future players.
He survived MLB’s bigger stadiums and its teams’ hard-throwing pitchers and carved out a robust career for himself independent of his many feats in Japan, helping to add another layer of legitimacy to the Japanese game.
Matsui compiled a .282 average over 10 seasons in the majors, hitting 175 home runs and driving in 760 runs. He ends his MLB career with an .822 on-base plus slugging percentage and 18.6 wins above replacement.
Japanese fans kept close tabs on Matsui during that time. After all, he had left the mighty Kyojin, venerated former club of Sadaharu Oh and Mr. Pro Yakyu himself, Shigeo Nagashima, who also managed the Giants during Matsui’s first nine seasons, to head to America.
Japanese fans felt great pride in watching Matsui become one of the key players for MLB’s most storied franchise. It was further confirmation that Japanese could not only compete in the U.S., but thrive.
With many of the Yankees’ games broadcast in Japan, Matsui enjoyed a few solid years in New York, making two All-Star Games and hitting .292 with 140 home runs and 597 RBIs in seven seasons there.
“He played with pride, discipline and, of course, talent, and flourished when the lights were at their brightest,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in a statement. “People naturally gravitated towards him, and that’s a direct reflection of his character. He was a true professional in every sense of the word and it feels good knowing he was able to raise the championship trophy as a member of the Yankees.”
As age and injuries began to set in, Matsui’s career reached its zenith with one final burst of glory during the 2009 World Series, when he went 3-for-4 with a home run and a record six RBIs in the clinching sixth game and was named MVP of the series, a first for a Japanese-born player.
Late in his career, in his late 30s and after bad knees robbed him of his defensive value, Matsui still found work on the belief there was still some of the old monster left in his bat — a sort of aging slugger’s badge of honor. The Angels took that bet in 2010; the A’s in 2011; and the Rays, albeit briefly, in 2012.
Matsui was already 28 years old by the time he reached the majors. He had spent the first 10 years of his career starring for the Giants, sending ball after ball to the delirious Kyojin supporters that packed the outfield seats at Tokyo Dome.
He helped lead Yomiuri to three Japan Series crowns and left the team with a career .304 average, 332 home runs and 889 RBIs. He was also a three-time Central League MVP (1996, 2000, 2002) and the 2000 Japan Series MVP.
Matsui hit 507 home runs between NPB and MLB, a number only six Japanese players have surpassed.
He was a winner on every level, and fittingly will be remembered as one of the best Japan has ever produced.