Thank You, Hideki Matsui
As the 2002 postseason came to a close for the New York Yankees on a Nick Johnson pop-up to Anaheim Angel shortstop David Eckstein, one question was immediately raised as the players solemnly gathered their belongings together from the visitors dugout and continued down the hallway to the clubhouse.
With clean-up hitter Bernie Williams beginning to show serious signs of slowing down, the talented Alfonso Soriano showing no signs of maturing at the plate, and superstar Jason Giambi displaying a knack for withering under pressure, what was New York going to do about its lack of power?
Since the majority of the starting rotation was set to return for the 2003 season, New York had the luxury during the offseason of setting its sights on a big bat to bolster a flat Yankee lineup.
However, the organization decided to set its sights a bit farther than usual.
After seeing the success displayed by Seattle's right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, who was enticed by the Mariners to make the move to the U.S. in 2001, the Yankees decided shortly after their early departure from the playoffs that they were going to travel overseas for the answer.
However, this player was a much different breed than the fleet-footed Ichiro. This player was considered the "Babe Ruth of Japan."
In ten seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, Hideki Matsui hit 332 home runs with a .582 slugging percentage and a .304 batting average for his Japanese career.
It was those numbers that earned him the nickname "Godzilla," which was given to him by the Yomiuri faithful.
To the Yankees, "Godzilla" sounded like a perfect source of power. The Yankees would have their man before Christmas 2002.
Matsui was inserted into the number five spot of the batting order on Opening Day 2003 at Yankee Stadium. It was in that game in which he became the first Yankee ever to hit a grand slam during his first game at Yankee Stadium.
By the end of the season, Godzilla had proved that he would have no problem living up to his given name in the United States just as he had while playing in Japan.
While his 16 home runs were nothing special, he managed to drive in 106 and batted .287 while protecting Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams in the New York lineup.
Angel Berroa went on to beat Matsui in the Rookie of the Year voting (it is believed that many voters felt that a 29-year-old who had been playing professional baseball for 10 years should not have been considered a "rookie"), however, Hideki went on to bigger and better things during his first year with the Yankees: the playoffs.
It was during the eighth inning of Game Seven in the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox that Matsui ripped a Pedro Martinez fastball down the right field line and into the stands for a ground rule double.
That would set up the game-tying bloop double by Jorge Posada.
Hideki was the tying run.
Three innings later, that game would remembered better for the Aaron Boone home run, which sent New York to the World Series for the sixth time in eight years.
But the fact would remain that Matsui's eighth inning double was the biggest hit of his Yankee career—that was, until Wednesday night.
Hideki Matsui's performance in the clinching Game Six of the 2009 World Series should be remembered for many different reasons. For one, six runs batted in during a World Series game is something that has happened very few times previously.
Yankee fans should realize that this was probably the single greatest World Series game performance since Reggie Jackson's three home runs in Game Six of 1977.
But stepping away from baseball history for a second, it may have simply been one of the greatest good-byes a player has ever given his fans.
Nothing is for certain, but the general consensus is that Matsui will not return to the Yankees in 2010; a decision that neither side, Hideki nor the Yankees, will arrive at lightly.
The best way to justify it is that it simply makes sense.
Matsui is 35 years of age now, and while that certainly does not mean the end for his professional career, multiple surgeries and an inability to play the outfield may lead to his departure from New York.
The Yankees have made it no secret that one of their greatest desires is gradually make the overall roster younger over the upcoming seasons. Step one may be to get rid of an immobile designated hitter.
Matsui put up excellent offensive numbers this year. They surpassed anything that anyone could have expected from him after a surgery-filled winter (.274 BA, 28 HR, 90 RBI). But the emergence of young Yankees such as Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, and the dwindling defense of Jorge Posada may just leave no room for our old friend Godzilla.
If this is the end for Hideki Matsui in pinstripes, then I believe it is imperative that Yankee fans pay homage to a great player, and more importantly a great gentleman.
During his seven years in the Bronx, Matsui gave so much to the team and took so much less.
You would be hard-pressed to find a fan who would say Hideki Matsui was their favorite Yankee. Not when options like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia are out there.
But the fact is that this guy delivered day in, day out. For every year, he could be penciled in for a .290 average, 20 home runs, 100 runs batted in and, up until he broke his wrist in 2006 sliding to catch a fly ball, 162 games.
Up until now, his career line reads .292 with 140 home runs.
Hall of Fame numbers? Not even close. But certainly noteworthy.
While other players strut up to the batter's box along to the likes of Jay-Z, 50 Cent, or P. Diddy, give me Matsui, who calmly strolls up to the box listening to his Billy Joel, turns to the pitcher, his bat at a perfect 90 degree angle with knees slightly bent, as if to say "I'm ready for what you've got."
Matsui will continue to play somewhere if he seriously wants to do it. There are plenty of American League teams with the space open in the designated hitter spot that would welcome a player of this caliber with open arms.
It would certainly be hard to watch him in another uniform though.
If this is truly the end, then thank you Godzilla. Thanks for the effort, thanks for the professionalism, and THANK YOU for the World Series.
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