By Vincent Z. Mercogliano
NEW YORK — In Derek Jeter’s eyes, it’s easy to see why Hideki Matsui became popular with Yankee fans so quickly after coming to the U.S. from Japan in 2003.
“He was a professional,” Jeter said. “He played every day. The biggest thing is he never made excuses. He never talked about injuries; he never used injuries as an excuse. He went out there and played. As players, you appreciate that.”
Jeter called Matsui “one of my favorite teammates,” which is high praise coming from a player who has won five titles and played with so many greats.
“Coming from somebody like that, first and foremost, I have the upmost respect for him as a teammate,” Matsui said of Jeter’s comments. “Coming from somebody like him, it’s quite an honor. As a human being and as a player, to be respected that way is a great feeling.”
“This moment will be a moment that I will never forget,” Matsui said. “To be able to retire as a member of the team that I aspired to and looked up to, I think there is nothing more fulfilling.”
Matsui – who played 10 seasons in Japan before playing 10 more seasons in the Major Leagues – signed a minor league deal with the Yankees on Sunday so that he could officially retire as a member of the team. He was presented with a framed jersey by Jeter and threw out the ceremonial first-pitch before the Yankees’ game with the Tampa Bay Rays.
“Not only was he a middle of the order hitter that had great production, he was a staple in the clubhouse,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He was adored by his teammates, a leader – you think about what he went through to play every day with his knees. He was tough, and you go back to Game 6 (of the 2009 World Series) and how important that game was to us. You’re going to have a hard time finding a player that was more liked in our clubhouse than Hideki Matsui over the years.”
Matsui played seven seasons with the Yankees, leading them to a World Series title in 2009 with six RBI in the clinching game against the Philadelphia Phillies to earn MVP honors.
“I’m wearing a ring, a 2009 ring, thanks to Hideki Matsui’s efforts,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “That was one of the reasons, obviously, why we gravitated to him. We felt that he could take us to that next level. Not surprisingly, he did that in Japan, and he did it for us, as well.”
The World Series MVP will be Matsui’s lasting memory on the field, but it was his unassuming nature and hard working attitude that endeared him to Yankee fans.
“I honestly don’t know how Yankee fans really feel about me, but if they really feel that way, then I’m just honored,” he said. “I didn’t try to do anything in particular. All I really focused on was doing everything necessary to win the World Series here. As a result of what I portrayed from that, if they picked up something from me, there’s nothing greater than that.”
Associated Press photos