Hideki Matsui came to New York in 2003 without a home or a working knowledge of the English language. He left with both, plus a fan base that spans half the globe.
Besides being a fan favorite and a major contributor on the field, Matsui was the epitome of good sportsmanship. Ending in 2006, Matsui had a consecutive game streak that stretched back to his Japan days.
His professional baseball career began in 1993, at the tender age of 18, as he was the number one draft pick for the Yomiuri Giants that year. From there, he never looked back.
Though he hit just .223 in his rookie year, his career skyrocketed after that point. He would hit at least .283 in each of the next nine seasons with Yomiuri, and at least 34 home runs in seven of those nine seasons.
His best season came in 2002, when he hit .334 with 50 home runs and 107 RBI's, in which he was the MVP.
In short, he was a superstar.
Then he made the career changing decision to come to MLB.
Following in the footsteps of Ichiro Suzuki who signed with the Mariners, Matsui decided to play in an even bigger media outlet: New York.
Though the New York media is tough, Matsui thrived, getting tons of coverage from news stations in Japan. The Japanese media went so far to have a camera solely on Matsui throughout the whole game.
In addition, Japanese companies started to sponsor the Yankees, and even covered a part of the outfield in the old stadium. This means Japan gave exposure to the Yankees and Major League Baseball.
Derek Jeter probably doesn't mind 100 million Japanese people knowing his name and buying his uniforms.
Matsui started off his MLB career on the right foot: he hit a single in his first career at-bat, off Roy Halladay, who went on to win the Cy Young award that same season.
And just seven games into his Yankee career, Matsui would do the unthinkable: hit a game winning, walk off grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium against the Twins. It was something Yankee fans will never forget.
That was just during the first seven games.
Matsui finished his rookie season with a .287 average, with 16 home runs, and 106 RBI. His 106 RBI were second on the team to Jason Giambi, who had just one more.
Many thought Matsui was unfairly thought upon in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year. He finished second to Angel Berroa, who hit .287, with 17 home runs and 73 RBI.
Matsui didn't stop there.
He improved in all categories for 2004, as he hit .298, 31 home runs, which is nearly double from 2003 and 108 RBI.
The improvement kept on going.
Though his power numbers went down in 2005, everything else improved. He finished with a .305 average, 23 home runs, and a career high 116 RBI.
Matsui was productive in 2006, but something happened that he had never experienced in his career: he missed a game.
On May 11th, 2006, Matsui was going for a fly ball against Boston when he dived and fell on his wrist, breaking it in the process. Matsui would miss 111 games, and not return until September 12th. For the 51 games he did play, he hit .302, with eight home runs and 29 RBI.
2007 was a prototypical Matsui season. He hit .285, with 25 home runs and 103 RBI.
Much like 2006, the 2008 season was marred by injuries. In 93 games, Matsui hit .294, with nine home runs and 45 RBI.
Though he is 35, Matsui has continued to be productive into the 2009 season. Through 100 games, Matsui is hitting .265, with 16 home runs and 52 RBI.
But a season by season analysis can only do so much for your perception of him. The bottom line is that he is the prime example of sportsmanship. On the field, he plays the game right. Off the field he did his job: kept quiet.
It's too bad that we've reduced ourselves to thinking that playing the game right is something out of the ordinary. That is what should be expected.
Never a peep about him staying out late at a night club, or anything about steroids. He simply plays the game right, and doesn't ask for any additional recognition.
That is why he is the epitome of sportsmanship.
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