Matsui cements his legacyGodzilla enjoys game for the ages as Yanks win No. 27
Matsui hasn't quite been "Godzilla" in the United States, but he's been pretty darn good. He played in a World Series his rookie year, slugged 31 homers in 2004, drove in a career-high 116 runs in '05, endured a serious wrist injury and knee surgery and recovered to go yard 28 times in 2009, a franchise record for most by a designated hitter.
When he signed here as a free agent -- the culmination of a dogged recruitment spearheaded by assistant general manager Jean Afterman -- the comparison was made to captain Derek Jeter and how each grew up under the spotlight of the two biggest markets in the world.
"They matured in the same way," Afterman said. "They both came of age under the spotlight and had tremendous success, and managed to carry themselves with grace and passion their whole careers.
"He wanted to play where Babe Ruth played and wanted to do what Babe Ruth did. And that's still true."
Matsui wasn't just great in the World Series. He was Reggiesque -- and Ruthian in his own way. Thirty-two years after Reggie Jackson made the old lady across the street his personal playground, Matsui used another Game 6 to cement his Yankees legacy, driving in a World Series record-tying six runs to lead the Yankees to a 7-3 win and their 27th World Championship. His Fall Classic numbers are astounding: a .615 batting average (8-for-13) with a double, three home runs, eight RBIs and a 1.385 slugging percentage (the second-highest in World Series history among players with at least 10 at-bats).
Matsui and Reggie stand together with their Series RBI records. Matsui stands alone as the first pure DH to be named World Series MVP. For a player whose time in the Bronx may have run out, Matsui won his ring by taking over two of the biggest cities in the world, New York and Tokyo. And on a personal level, it was the ultimate validation on why he relocated to another country.
"I'm certainly aware that I represent Japan in that sense as a baseball player, but more so in my mind I feel that I am a member of the Yankees -- I'm a Yankee baseball player," Matsui said. "Being here, winning the World Series, becoming World Champions, that's what you strive for here.
"There's no doubt this is the greatest moment for me."
Jackson, of course, hit three home runs and drove in five in Game 6 of the '77 Fall Classic. Like Jackson, Matsui's career has been defined by getting it done in the clutch. In seven seasons as a Yankee, Matsui batted .301 with runners in scoring position to go with 35 home runs and 451 RBIs. Early in a game in which the Yankees had to pound Pedro Martinez early, Matsui's two-run home run in the third inning was the first sign of an eventual coronation.
"He is not only a great player his whole life, he's got great character," said team president Randy Levine. "To do what he did is beyond belief. Nobody can picture somebody having such an unbelievable night, but it doesn't surprise us because he always comes up big in the moment. Always."
All this while coming off left knee surgery and often having fluid drained just so he can stay in the lineup, restricted to being a DH. Even at less than 100 percent, an entire country expects Matsui to carry a team. Where many others would crack, Matsui excelled and upped the ante. Afterman also had offseason knee surgery and often worked out with the slugger, who'd crack that he's running, so why wasn't she.
"I had to tell him, 'I'm a little bit older than you are, so it takes a longer time to heal,'" Afterman said. "Every single day in the offseason he was working out. No day off for him."
"Every single day his knees were probably on fire and they were bothering him, but he gave it everything he had," added Brett Gardner. "He's one of the great ones."
There was never a day's rest from rehab or the media. After every game, whether it was late October or early May, a throng of Japanese media crowded around his locker. If he'd go 3-for-4, it was big news. If he was hitless, it was a shock and everyone would ask why. Matsui never ran to hide. He'd meet the Japanese and eventually the American media as questions on his health and future continued to mount.
All the while he succeeded, hitting 28 home runs and driving in 90 during a season in which many were virtually writing him off during Spring Training.
"You have to think about everything he's achieved, who he is and what he means to this team, and what he means to his country and this country," Afterman said. "It's quite a thing to be the hero of two countries at the same time. It's really hard to get here from Japan -- really, really hard. And he made it."
He made Martinez work too, forcing him to throw eight pitches before seeing one that made him salivate.
"It's amazing. In a Game 6, he carried us," said Joe Girardi. "We scored seven runs and he drives in six. I think about that first at-bat he had off of Pedro. He was unbelievable."
He once played in an unbelievable 1,768 consecutive professional baseball games, a ton of mileage that was killing his knees. The Yankees have sights on using the DH slot as a place to provide a half-day off to their veterans. Austin Jackson may also be ready for a breakthrough in 2010, so the educated guess was the Yankees and Matsui parting ways.
That's no longer a safe assumption.
"It'd be nice if I can come back, but at this point I really don't know," Matsui said.
Even if Matsui's Yankees book is complete, that final chapter was penned by old friends mystique, aura, magic and karma. Yankees senior advisor Ray Negron is the executive producer of an animated film called "Henry and Me," based on his collection of children's books, mostly the plot from "One Last Time: Goodbye to Yankee Stadium." In it, the ghosts of Yankees past gathered for one final game on their field of dreams. When "Henry and Me" was written, the one who hit the home run that wins the World Series had yet to reach that level.
That is until Wednesday night, November 4, 2009: Game 6 of the World Series.
"It's a little ironic that my animation, which comes out in April, the hero is Hideki Matsui," Negron said.
Seriously, you can't make this stuff up. Twenty-five men, and then some, made the Yankees champions. Matsui gave them that one last lift.