Professional baseball player
Born June 12, 1974, in Neagar, Ishikawa, Japan; son of Masao Matsui (a reverend).
Addresses: Contact—New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium, 161st St., Bronx, NY, 10451.
Played in National High School Baseball Championship teams throughout high school; Yomiuri Giants, 1992–2002; New York Yankees, 2003–.
Awards: Most Valuable Player, Japanese Central League, 1996, 2000, 2002; won Japan Series (with Yomiuri Giants), 1994, 2000, 2002; Manjiro Adventurer Award, Manjiro Historic Friendship Society, 2004; Golden Players Club (for 2,000 career hits), Japan, 2007.
Hideki Matsui was a nine-time All Star player in Japan, playing for the country's most popular baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, but in 2003, he announced his status as a free agent and ended up signing a three-year, $21 million major league contract. At the age of 28 Matsui (pronounced He-deck-ee Ma-soo-ee), one of Japan's most celebrated baseball stars, was heading to the United States to play for the New York Yankees. Matsui is noted and praised for his humility in the face of his extreme popularity. On the day he announced his departure from Japanese baseball, Robert Whiting of Time International reported that "Matsui bowed his head and apologized profusely to team management, teammates, and the fans. And then he expressed more contrition for his selfishness. At one point, on the verge of tears, he said: 'I hope people don't think I'm a traitor.'"
Matsui, nicknamed Godzilla by Japanese fans for his powerhouse hitting style, was born on June 12, 1974, in Neagar, Ishikawa, Japan. He is the younger of two sons of Masao, a reverend teacher of a Shinto-based religion. From early on it was apparent that Matsui was a talented athlete. The combination of his father's religious teaching and his mother's athletic legacy (as a teenager she was a star volleyball player) seems to have worked well to form Matsui into a committed sportsman with a sense of humility. Growing up he earned a first-degree black belt in judo—a Japanese martial art. He placed first in a local sumo tournament. But where Matsui really excelled was "yakyu" (Japanese baseball), so much so that he had to handicap himself against older players. Batting left-handed, Matsui continued to be a powerful hitter.
He attended Seiryo High School in Kanazawa. The school was famous for producing baseball players, and Matsui continued to add to the school's legend-ary status. He played in the National High School Baseball Championship four times. His abilities at the bat made him a common target of walking by pitchers and teams fearful of his homerun hits. The last time he played the High School Championship, he was walked five times. Time International's Whiting reported, "His stoic, impassive behavior during those at bats drew great praise…. [He] … credited his restraint to a severe public slapping he had received from his junior high school coach for throwing a bat in anger…. 'It was a valuable lesson for me,' he said. 'From that day on, I resolved never to lose control of my emotions in a game again.'"
In 1992, right out of high school, Matsui was drafted by the Yomiuri Giants. He played center field and was a star batter. When he debuted in the Central League on the Giants team, he was 18 years old. He spent the next ten seasons dedicating himself to the game and his team. He was on the Central League All Star team for nine years, earning Most Valuable Player awards in three different years. He played 1,250 consecutive games while with the Yomiuri Giants. In 2002, his last season with the Giants, he hit 50 home runs and had a batting average of .334. The Giants won the Japan Series that year with his help.
In 2003, Matsui joined the New York Yankees baseball team after leaving Japan with great fanfare. For the soft-spoken athlete, there were two big challenges to this move. First was the pitching style most common in United States and second was the language barrier. A consummate player, changing his style of batting was just a matter of adjusting to a more aggressive style. Matsui explained to Ted Keith the differences in an article for Sports Illustrated for Kids, "In Japan, they throw the ball outside the strike zone and make you swing at balls. Here they are more aggressive and make you swing inside the strike zone." Matsui described the difficulty to Ken Davidoff, writing for Sporting News, "[T]he adjustment has been difficult. If I continued to play the way I played in Japan, it would be very difficult to adjust here. I feel it's important to change your approach accordingly. I definitely feel that difficulty, even on a daily basis."
As for adjusting to the new language, in 2004, Matsui told Baseball Digest, "It wasn't especially difficult to adjust here. But I think the biggest challenge has been the language: In terms of eating, or just living, in general, that's been fine." Matsui has an interpreter that works with him on and off the field. In general, Matsui tries to fend for himself whether talking to coaches, teammates, or reporters. But if he feels he cannot correctly relay his meaning, he calls on his interpreter to help.
Mastui's first season with the Yankees, in 2003, he hit a grand slam at the Yankees' home opening game. He was the first Yankee rookie to ever make such a play in his first game at the home stadium. Although he was not matching his batting average from Japan, Matsui was playing solid baseball and continually improving. He went from a .287 average with 16 home runs his first season, to a .298 average with 31 home runs the second season. He ended the 2005 season with a .305 average.
Matsui was beginning to show that he had brought the Godzilla moniker with him from Japan. His batting was improving, as was his overall game and his comfort with his new life in the United States. Then, on May 11, 2006, Matsui broke his wrist diving for a fly ball in the first inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox. The injury took him out of the game, breaking a 1,768 streak of consecutive games (including games played in Japan). Placed on the injured list and scheduled for surgery for the broken wrist, Matsui held a press conference and apologized to his manager and teammates for letting them down.
Fortunately, Matsui's recovery was quick and he was playing again by the 2007 season. The Yankees renewed his contract for four years and $52 million dollars. With that contract Matsui became the highest-paid Japanese baseball player in the United States. With scores of fans, including most of the sports fans of Japan, Matsui is constantly under pressure to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and answer questions from the press. He handles all of it with a quiet smile and kindness. He explained to Time International's Whiting, "I asked for this life…. Nobody forced it on me, and I have a duty to the people who put me here…. I promised my father I would always be nice to people and I have done my best to keep that promise."
Baseball Digest, January 2004, p. 42.
Sporting News, August 18, 2003, p. 18
Sports Illustrated for Kids, July 1, 2003, p. 29.
Time International, April 28, 2003, p. 66.