The baseball gentleman will return to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. Hideki Matsui will stroll into his old home with the Angels, his new team. There will be a flock of reporters chronicling every handshake and high-five that Matsui shares, but he will remain as stoic as always. He rarely looks flustered, mostly because he rarely is.
If Matsui could have dictated his baseball address for 2010, he would have returned to the Yankees. Matsui loved playing and living in New York, adored his teammates and felt comfortable in a place he had been for seven seasons. Because Matsui was instrumental in helping the Yankees win a title last year so, he would have relished being part of a club that is trying to win back-to-back championships.
But Matsui did not totally control his script for this season. The Yankees had a lot of decision-making power, too. As valuable as Matsui was to the Yankees, they felt that they had squeezed everything out of a player with two surgically-repaired knees and did not push to re-sign him. Matsui was savvy enough to recognize New York’s disinterest and signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Angels.
“There was a bit of sadness given the time that I had spent there,” said Matsui, in an e-mail response through Isao Hirooka, his liaison to the Japanese media. “But I was ready to move forward.”
As disappointing as it was for Matsui to leave New York, he worked to make it simple. Matsui has a penchant for simplicity. Whether Matsui was batting in an important situation or doing daily interview sessions with American reporters and then Japanese reporters, he made it easy on himself. Matsui didn’t complicate matters, which might explain why he had a kinship with Derek Jeter. Jeter is the king of simplicity.
Matsui’s first trip to the Stadium as an opposing player is the Yankees’ home opener and also happens to be the day they are distributing their World Series rings. The Yankees get to save the shipping costs on Matsui’s ring by presenting it to him in person. Matsui said it is “every baseball player’s goal to win the championship” so he is anxious to collect his jewelry.
Since Matsui is no longer a Yankee, I thought it might feel awkward for him to pick up the ring as an Angel. On the contrary, Matsui, Mr. Simple, disagreed with that theory.
“Well, this was about last year so, in my mind, I don’t quite see it that way,” Matsui said.
After Matsui hit .615 with three homers and eight runs batted in to help the Yankees clinch the World Series in six games, he was named the Most Valuable Player and called it “the best moment” of his life. That game ended up being the last moment of his Yankee life. Still, Matsui, in true gentlemanly fashion, said there was sadness, not bitterness, over leaving the Yankees.
The Yankees eventually signed Nick Johnson to be their designated hitter, a position Matsui could have handled if they weren’t so concerned about his fragile knees. Interestingly, Johnson has a fragile history and has been on the disabled list nine times in his career. If both players remain healthy for the season, Matsui would be expected to smash more homers and drive in more runs while Johnson would be expected to have a higher on-base percentage. Matsui is batting .370 with two homers in his first six games for the Angels.
During his stint with the Yankees, Matsui distinguished himself from other players in pressure spots. In late and close situations, which are defined as the seventh inning or beyond with the score tied, the batting team ahead by one run or the potential tying run at-bat, on base or on deck, Matsui has a .326 career average. Johnson has a .285 average in those spots.
Matsui declined to speculate if the Yankees would miss him in crucial situations or if they would miss him at all this season. That was not surprising. He is too classy to utter a critical word about anyone. He is an Angel now, but the astute Yankee fans will recognize that the baseball gentleman deserves another rousing ovation on Tuesday.
“They might applaud or they might boo me,” Matsui said. “Hopefully, it’s not the latter.”
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter all season long at @JackCurryYES.