Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sayonara Batman....

It was more than a decade ago when the New York Yankees big free-agent, off-season signing was not an established major league player but - instead - the biggest star in a league three-quarters of the world away.  Hideki Matsui was that year's most expensive Japanese import - costing the Bombers the equivalent of a whole freighter's worth of Mitsubishis.  Not to mention a whole lot of Benjamins.
The myth of Matsui that was sold to us who root for the Yankees on this continent was that he was a masher.  He was built to bludgeon the short porch of the Stadium with his compact, left-handed swing.  They sold us on the notion of him by referring to him as "Godzilla" and inviting us to imagine a left-handed basher in the heart of the lineup who - while he would be ill-equipped to do anything else - would hit a whole hell of a lot of home runs. 
Thankfully for all concerned - but for those of us in the fan base - the myth of Matsui never came close to approximating reality.  He was not the standstill defensive liability who would hit forty to fifty home runs annually while achieving nothing more than a mediocre batting average.  In fact, in the years he spent in the Bronx he never came close to putting up the "as advertised" home run totals.  And it mattered not at all. 
For irrespective of how much he was advertised, he was far better than the hype promised he would be.  He was a major presence in the heart of a lineup that made the playoffs every season but one.  And he was arguably the most clutch of all of the bats in that lineup.  But he made his bones NOT by mashing home runs but by being what we had been told he was not:  an exceptional all-around player.  His first at-bat as a Yankee told the tale for his career in the Bronx:  opening night vs. Toronto and facing future first-ballot Hall of Famer Roy Halladay with a man on second and two outs, Matsui drove in the run.  By whacking the ball into the bleachers at Sky Dome?  No.  He did it by chopping a base hit into left field - in the hole between short and third.  We were told he knew nothing of little ball.  It took him less than ten pitches in the Bigs to expose that lie.
He ended his career in the Bronx in 2009.  He was the World Series MVP of the Yankees 4-2 triumph over the Phillies.  Although he played in only half of the games, he was the offensive star of the Series - delivering three home runs.  Hmmm.  Maybe he was "Godzilla" after all?  Not a chance.
On Thursday evening - three seasons removed from his final one in New York, Hideki Matsui retired from professional baseball.   Perhaps all one really needs to know about what he meant to the Yankees one can learn from listening to what his uber-famous teammate (and team captain) Derek Jeter ("I've had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites.  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. I have a lot of respect for Hideki") and his first big-league manager Joe Torre ("Hideki came to the Yankees as a superstar and immediately became a team favorite. Not only for his talent but for the unselfishness he brought to the game every day.  Hideki Matsui is a winner and I was proud to be his manager") said about him on Thursday.
All I need to do is think back to the cold day in early November 2009 when the Missus and I joined a few hundred thousand other souls in the Canyon of Heroes at the parade to celebrate the World Series win.  There - alone at the front of the lead float - stood Matsui.  Unlike many of his teammates he was not bundled up against the cold or shielded from view by a multitude.  That sly grin that I captured as he passed by our vantage point was present on his face the entire day.  A man content to soak in all that a well-earned and (for many) overdue triumph for his team and for himself had brought him.   
I could not help but notice that in the photos I saw from his retirement gathering on Thursday, he was sporting that same grin.  Proof positive that even when it announces its retirement from the game, class never goes out of style.  

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