Since the start of the new century, Major League Baseball has seen an influx of players coming from Japan. While there were some to play prior to the 2000s, it wasn’t until recently that some truly became stars. Hideki Matsui was one of those players who helped usher in the Japanese influence in the league and, after a very successful 20-year career, Godzilla has decided to retire, leaving behind a legacy both in the United States and his home country.
Matsui began his professional career in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in 1993 with the Yomiuri Giants. He spent 10 years with the most decorated franchise in the league’s history, winning three championships, three MVP awards, and nine all-star honors. His lifetime stats there included a .304 batting average, 332 home runs, and 889 RBI. He became a star and one of the most popular players in the league, but chose the bright lights of New York instead of a six-year, $64-million contract offer to remain with the Giants, that would have made him the highest paid player in Japanese league history.
He joined the Yankees in 2003 as a bit of a question mark. The only other player at that time who had truly made the transition from Japan to MLB successfully was Ichiro Suzuki. Matsui provided a different skill set than the speedy right fielder. Rather than being known for stolen bases and batting average, Matsui was more the power hitter. So, the three-year, $21-million deal he signed with New York was significantly lower than his offer from the Giants, but there was no blueprint for success in the Majors for a player like him.
He soon proved, though, that he belonged among the best players in the world. He had a RBI single in his first at bat with the Yankees, then added a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium. During that 2003 season he played in every game, hitting .287/.353/.435 with 16 homeruns and 106 RBI. He was named to the American League All-Star team and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
It was the start of what would become a prosperous run in New York. After two more impressive seasons, including another All-Star appearance, Matsui was rewarded with a four-year, $52-million dollar contract. During the final year of that deal in 2009, the Yankees won the World Series and his time in New York came to an end. He finished his run with a .292 batting average and 140 homeruns in seven seasons. He spent the next three years working on one-year deals with the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays.
Among the things for which Matsui will be most remembered was his penchant for coming up big in the postseason. In the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, he hit .308 and had a ground-rule double in the bottom of the 8th inning in Game 7 to keep the Yankees’ rally going allowing them to tie and, eventually, win the game and reach the World Series. In the 2009 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Matsui hit an incredible .615/.643/.1.385 with three home runs and eight RBI and was named the Series MVP. In 56 career postseason games, he hit .312 with 10 homeruns.
One of Matsui’s more impressive accomplishments was his ability to remain on the field. While in Japan, he played in 1,250 straight games. Then, in New York, he continued his to show his durability, playing in 518 more consecutive games. That streak is still the longest for any player in starting his career and the total 1,768 is behind only Cal Ripken, Jr. and Lou Gehrig in all professional baseball. Additionally, his total of 175 homeruns in the Majors is the most ever by a Japanese-born player.
Most teammates and even reporters agree that Matsui was one of the most liked players they’d ever been around. Always good for a quote and quick with a one-liner, he was a friendly presence in any clubhouse. Many believe he may continue his career in baseball by managing in Japan. Whatever he chooses to do, though, his impact will always be felt as one of the players who helped Japanese players become vital pieces of MLB organizations.