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The fire inside Hideki Matsui

By Ed Botti

During this free agent season, just like many others before, many big names cross paths with the Yankees. Sometimes they are just using the Yankees to drive up their value in the market. Other times it’s just pure dream weaving by Yankee fans.

Under the Steinbrenner ownership era free agency has always been a Yankee method of re-tooling, and it all started with Catfish Hunter on New Year’s Eve 1974.

Reggie Jackson once said “When we started winning in Oakland, Cat was the father of those teams”. When he came to New York, he brought that with him, along with his amazing pin-point control that frustrated the league’s best hitters.

Years later Catfish would say, “To be a Yankee is a thought in everyone’s head and mine. Just walking into Yankee Stadium, chills run through you. I believe there was a higher offer, but no matter how much money offered, if you want to be a Yankee, you don’t think about it.”

Catfish turned out to be a great signing for the Yankees.

As we all know, not all of them do turn out that way. For every Catfish Hunter there seems to be a Carl Pavano or Ed Whitson. For every Reggie Jackson, there is a Steve Kemp or Jacoby Ellsbury. Guys that just couldn’t handle playing on the biggest and brightest stage in professional sports, or just couldn’t stay on the field enough to earn their pay and place in Yankee folklore.

Another great Free Agent signing (actually an international signing) that comes to mind is when Hideki Matsui left the Yomiuri Giants and became a New York Yankee in December of 2002.

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Photo by Rob Tringali/Sportschrome

Godzilla, as he was known as in Japan, came to New York somewhat of a mystery to a lot of us who followed the team in 2002. Yes, he had some fantastic numbers in Japan and he was left-handed, but could he do in New York what he did in Japan?

That was the question on everyone’s mind in his first spring training in 2003. He quickly impressed and earned his teammates respect, almost immediately.

He was such a huge super star in Japan that when he left he was honored with a parade to celebrate that he would be playing in the Major Leagues, and with the top team in the world.

Every single move he made was covered by many in the Japanese media. He seemed almost embarrassed at the time by all the attention he was getting. But it became very clear to all that watched him during this time, that not only can he handle the bright lights and attention, he handled it with class and dignity.

As his ex-manager Shigeo Nagashima would later say, “there is nothing that scares Hideki”.

On the field, it became clear to his new teammates and millions of discerning fans right away. This guy could play, he is as advertised.

The home opener that year was against the Minnesota Twins on April 8, 2003. Fan favorite Andy Pettitte was given the honor of Opening Day Starter, and did not disappoint… pitching great into the sixth inning.

In the bottom of the fifth inning with the Yankees holding on to a 3-1 lead, Twins’ starter Joe Mays loaded the bases and right out of a Hollywood script, up came the new kid on the block.

The tension built in the old ball park as he worked the count to 3-2. On the sixth pitch, he officially became a Yankee to the 33,109 in attendance (it was 37 degrees, and many just stayed home) and the millions of others in the Yankee Universe.

He launched a text book Yankee Stadium home run deep into the right field seats. He rounded the bases in the gate in which we would become accustomed to; a pace to not dishonor or disrespect his opponent, he immediately became a Yankee fan favorite for the next 7 seasons, and even to this day. He was greeted at the plate by Nick Johnson, Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi, who all scored on the blast, and Jorge Posada, who was next up.

The mantle had been passed to the next great Yankee. It took him 3 at bats to have his first Yankee Stadium moment.

Not to pick on anyone, but I am waiting 3 years now for a certain $218 million dollar man to have his Yankee Stadium moment.

The Grand Slam would set the pace for his “Rookie” year as he would go on to hit .287 with 16 home runs, 42 doubles and 106 RBI. That post season, he became the first Japanese player to ever hit a home run in a World Series.

In a much debated move, two writers refused to put him on the Rookie of the Year ballot. As a result he barely lost out to Ángel Berroa of the Kansas City Royals. The two writers maintained Matsui was too old to be a rookie at 29 years old.

He picked up right where he left off in 2004 when he hit .298 with 31 homers 32 doubles and 108 RBI’s, and became even more of a fan favorite.

In 2005, he hit a career high .305 with 23 home runs, 45 doubles while driving in 116.

In his first 3 seasons he played every single game.

He was living up to the hype and earning every penny.

In 2006 he would hit .302 with 8 homers, 9 doubles and 29 RBI’s, in 51 games due to injury. He broke his wrist trying to catch a ball in left field. In typical Godzilla fashion, he later apologized to all his teammates and coaches.

He continued to impress and deliver when coming back from his broken wrist in 2007 when he became the first Japanese player to hit 100 home runs in the Major Leagues.

He had a flare for hitting on his birthday, on June 12, 2008, hit a Grand Slam on his 34th birthday, and did it again in 2009 with a three run homer.

2009 was a another solid season that saw him hit a solo walk off homer to give the Yankees their fourth win in a row after the All Star break. He capped off the regular season when he drove in a career high seven runs at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, the first to do it since Lou Gehrig in 1930.

But when you look back on those years, there is always the biggest moment of all that we remember.

To become a Yankee Legend, you have to perform in October (now that includes November). Godzilla did not disappoint.

In the 2009 World Series, he was the key cog in the lineup leading the Yankees to a 6 game World Series Championship against the defending Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Knowing that it was a distinct possibility that game 6 could very well be his last game ever as a Yankee (his contract extension was expiring) he added on to the legend of Godzilla and performed in the clutch like few others ever have.

In that decisive game 6 on November 4, 2009 he went 3-4 blasting a 2-run HR to go along with a 2-run double and a 2-run single. Godzilla tied a single game World Series record for RBIs (6) set by Bobby Richardson in 1960. In the clinching game 6 he accounted for 6 of the Yankee’s 7 total runs, on his way to winning the World Series MVP Award.

Overall, He hit .615 in the series with 3 home runs and 8 RBI’s. To throw in even more high praise, Matsui is forever linked to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth by becoming only the third player ever to hit above .500 with three home runs in a World Series.

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Photo by Neil Miller

That folks, is how you deliver and live up to a large contract.

To the chagrin and anger of millions of Yankee fans, his teammates, himself, and yours truly, Brian Cashman did not renew his contract after the 2009 World Series. In a very rare sign of emotion, Godzilla would state that he felt “let down” by the Yankees when they wouldn’t negotiate a new contract.

And that was it. He was finished as a Yankee and replaced by Curtis Granderson. He signed with the Angels that winter. After 2010 he signed one year deal with Billy Bean and the Oakland A’s and went on to reach milestones such as his 2,500th hit and 500th home run as a professional player.

In 2012 he signed a minor league contract at the age of 38 with the Tampa Bay Rays and played in only 34 games before retiring.

To finish it all off he signed a one day minor league contract with the Yankees in 2013, allowing him to retire from baseball as a New York Yankee. Which was very important to him and his legacy.

I bring up Hideki today not only because he was always a favorite of mine, but also because I just want to remind everyone out there that hungers to sign every free agent possible (or at least it seems that way to me) of one thing; there are very few like Hideki Matsui in the world. He lived up to a massive contract. No one he played with or played for ever regretted him joining the team. He put them over the top in the biggest game of his career on the biggest stage in professional sports in front of the world.

In other words, he delivered and did exactly what was expected, and even more.

He was fearless.

He was blessed with tremendous teammates, many future hall of famers that all had the never give in attitude. The type of person that is never in a situation that is too big for him to overcome. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and of course Mariano Rivera would never let that happen, and Hideki fit like a glove.

That intangible is what separates players from greatness to world champions.

That is the Yankee way.

Building a team is more than just assembling an all-star team and out spending the other teams. It requires a gut check, not just a pay check. It requires knowing what is inside of the player, and what drives him. Launch angles, exit velocity, etc. are all fun to read about, but what matters is the Ring.

Winning. It’s been too long between stops at the peak of the mountain, and there is a reason for that.

The right mix and chemistry is so often over looked in favor of personal stats and self-promotion.

As Catfish said “no matter how much money offered, if you want to be a Yankee, you don’t think about it.”

We do not know how the 2021 Yankees will be built. There are many holes to be filled, and they are an incredibly one dimensional and unbalanced line up.

Pieces do need to be added, but they should be added taking into account desire and the inner belief in one’s self. Not just stats and gimmicks.

The fire inside. This team needs more of that burning desire that Hideki and the 2009 team possessed. Players that feel every loss. Players that want to fight despite injuries or broken egos.

Keep in mind this very old statement “it’s not the size of the tiger in the fight, but the size of the fight in the tiger”.

Dollars mean nothing when measuring and gauging desire and inner strength.

They need to add players that literally feel pain when they lose. Not players that grab their phones and tweet some ridiculous comment to their “followers” after a 0-4 with 3 strikeouts.

The first question to ask any potential free agent Cashman is considering is simple. How bad do you want it?

Let’s all hope that the current crop of Yankee free agents and top dollar players can do remotely what Godzilla did as a Yankee. That is, stay on the field, be consistent, deliver when it counts the most, and most of all lead by example and never give in.

I saw that fire in Tampa Bay last season. The Yankees need to reignite and put personal stats aside for the greater good of the team.

Keep your launch angles, bring me players that have the fire inside that Hideki had.

How bad did he want it? I think he answered that question quite well.

Happy Holidays!


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