Wednesday, December 16, 2009

And On Occasion A Nice Guy Finishes West

When I heard the news come over the radio Monday afternoon, I smiled for a moment. Not at the news but at the knowledge that on the Friday immediately following the end of the 2009 World Series the Missus and me played hooky. We played hooky so we could join the gazillion or so other fans who turned out for the Yankees Championship Parade up the Canyon of Heroes. I wanted to go because my gut told me that it was the final time I would see at least certain of the players whose playing I enjoy so much being feted as members of the Yankees.

Riding atop the first float that morning - seemingly immune to the elements in his jacket and dress shirt that was open at the collar - was World Series MVP Hideki Matsui. And while he passed by our vantage point so fast that we caught only a glimpse of him, his ear-to-ear grin was visible regardless of where you stood along the route. He really seemed to enjoy and to appreciate all of the cheers.

Upon hearing of his signing with the Angels, my thoughts returned to the news of his arrival as a member of the Yankees prior to the start of the 2003 season. Matsui was the premier power hitter in Japan. There were those who projected that he would hit 50 home runs his first season in the Bronx. He was described in the press as a home-run hitting machine - able to hit the ball out of any park but really nothing more than that. His defensive liabilities were alleged to be profound and he was considered to be an average base runner. I anticipated when he showed up in America that the Yankees had signed the Asian incarnation of Jason Giambi. Matsui spent the next seven seasons dispelling me of that notion.

The player who arrived in New York was - language barrier notwithstanding - the whole package, both as a player and as a person. In Japan he had been larger than life. In New York, he fit right into the Yankees lineup as a reliable run producer. His ability to hit in the clutch, which was resplendent in Game Six of the World Series, was established in his first at-bat in the bigs. He drove in a run in his very first at-bat as a Yankee and he did so off of a brand-name pitcher by the name of Roy Halliday. And he did it in a way that would come to define his career in the Bronx as much as his majestic home runs would: he smacked a pitch on the outer half the other way through the hole between shortstop and third base.

The hallmark of Matsui's career in pinstripes was his consistency. In seven seasons as a Yankee - including two that were cut short by injuries - he hit a total of 140 home runs. He drove in more than 100 runs four times and in 2009 he drove in 90. And while it took the completion of seven seasons in New York, which turned out to be the entirety of his Yankees career, for him to win the World Series he came to the United States to win, he led the Yankees to victory in historically valuable fashion.

And now he is on his way to Los Angeles, a victim of creaky knees and baseball economics. As a fan I forget sometimes that while the rules are the same in the big leagues as they are on the sandlot, in the sandlot it is only a game. In the big leagues, it is a business. And in the business of baseball, the man who has been an All-Star on two continents ended up as a man without a home in the only home he had ever known in the major leagues.

Seven years ago Hideki Matsui traveled east to west. And now he is headed west again. I would not have suspected that Horace Greeley translated so readily into Japanese.

But I am happy to see that he does.


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