【写真 : 筆者撮影】
December 27, 2012
Matsui, Star in Two Continents, Is Retiring
By KEN BELSON
Like the United States, Japan has its own baseball royalty, and the princes are high school players drafted by the Yomiuri Giants. Being chosen by the hallowed Giants — Japan’s equivalent of the Yankees, the Lakers and the Cowboys combined — does not guarantee success. But the princes who succeed on and off the field are all but certain to be anointed kings.
Some of Japan’s most beloved players include Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Tatsunori Hara, who all starred for the Giants and later managed the team. Hara just guided the Giants to their 22nd championship, easily the most in Japanese baseball.
Hideki Matsui was destined to follow them. After a stellar high school career, Matsui was chosen by the Giants and made his debut in 1993 to much fanfare. His powerful bat earned him the nickname Godzilla, and he wore No. 55, a nod to Oh’s single-season home run record. Under intense scrutiny, he lived up to the billing, hitting 332 homers in 10 seasons. He led the Giants to three titles, including in 2002, when he was won the Most Valuable Player award.
It was his swan song in Japan. Matsui, the humble country boy who gave his all, who never raised a fuss and made grandmothers across the country proud, became a free agent and joined the Yankees the next year. Japan was torn. He was at the height of his powers, yet he headed to New York to play on baseball’s biggest stage.
“I tried to tell myself I needed to stay here for the prosperity of Japanese baseball,” he said in a nationally televised news conference a decade ago. But “I will do my best there so the fans will be glad I went.”
No doubt, Japanese fans were glad he went. Matsui hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium, in 2003, and he helped the Yankees return to the World Series that year. He played in every game his first three seasons before injuries sidelined him. He finished with a bang, hitting three homers in the 2009 World Series, which the Yankees won; he was named the most valuable player.
Matsui played with the Angels, the Athletics and the Rays in the last three seasons, but he was a far smaller presence. On Thursday, he conceded to the inevitable when he announced his retirement in a room packed with Japanese reporters at a Midtown Manhattan hotel.
“I wanted to bat cleanup again, but the results weren’t there,” Matsui said in slow, quiet Japanese, his eyes seemingly welling up. “I thought it was time to stop.”
With characteristic understatement, Matsui said he had no regrets, only that he could not play better. He paid homage to Nagashima, his manager on the Giants, who told him that Joe DiMaggio had also played center field, where Matsui played in Tokyo. Ever polite, he refused to name a favorite teammate so as not to leave anyone out.
Derek Jeter was not as shy. “I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites,” Jeter said in a statement. “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.”
Matsui declined to say what he planned to do next. But given his even temper and reputation, managing in Japan is a natural choice.
“I guess managing, he has the ability to do that,” said George Rose, who translated for Matsui when he came to America and is an adviser to the Yankees. “Younger players would really relate well to him.”
If Matsui had stayed with the Giants, he would have been groomed to take over as manager. But his departure for America irked the Giants, who tried hard to keep him. Though Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and many other Japanese moved to America before him, Matsui was the first star from the Giants to leave. His decision not to play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic also made waves.
The question may be irrelevant because Matsui appears comfortable living in the United States, said Robert Whiting, who has written extensively about Japanese baseball. Here, he can blend in and raise a family without being chased by ever-present reporters.
“Still, I somehow think that all would be forgiven if Matsui wanted to come back to Japan,” Whiting said. “Matsui has a lot of capital to spend in Japan.”
David Waldstein contributed reporting.