Hideki Matsui life and biography

Hideki Matsui picture, image, poster

Hideki Matsui biography

Date of birth : 1974-06-06
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Ishikawa Prefect, Japan
Nationality : Japanese
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-11-05
Credited as : Baseball player MLB, outfield with the New York Yankees,

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GROWING UP

Hideki Matsui was born on June 6, 1974 in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefect. He began playing baseball when he was three, with his father. Later, he excelled at the sport in elementary school, where he and his classmates used a rubber-coated ball on the playground.

Hideki joined his first organized team at age 10. By that time, he was already very focused on baseball. While other children embraced a number of sports—most notably soccer—Hideki confined his athletic interests to the diamond. He studied judo, but mostly to sharpen his reflexes.

As a child, Hideki rarely played a baseball game in which he was not the best player on the field. He found the infield to his liking, settling in at third base. His quick hands, sure glove and strong arm made him a natural at the hot corner.

Hideki developed into an excellent hitter with good power. His batting style was unusual for a slugger. He stood straight up, bending neither his knees nor his back. His erect stance served the function of slowing down his swing, which was extremely fast through the hitting zone. Although Hideki almost seemed to be fighting himself at the plate, no one quarreled with the final results.

Hideki was a fan of the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League. Their third baseman, Masayuki Kakefu, was one of Japan’s most beloved players. The Tigers did not have very good teams, but they were a lot of fun to watch.

When Hideki was a kid, Hanshin signed Randy Bass, an ex-major leaguer who became a prodigious slugger in Japan. The Tigers also had Cecil Fielder, before he returned to the United States and produced back-to-back 50-homer seasons in Detroit. Hideki found the longball hitters mesmerizing. Soon he was smashing long, high home runs himself.

In 1989, Hideki enrolled in Seiryo High School. He led the school to the Koshien National High School championships four summers in a row. During that time, he hit a record 60 home runs.

Hideki was a big kid. By his junior year, he stood over six feet tall and weighed close to 200 pounds. That was the year classmates began calling him “Godzilla” (Gojira, in Japanese). The nickname was a good one—Hideki was huge, and he obliterated opposing pitchers. But some say he acquired the monicker because of another reason. As a teenager, Hideki had a nasty case of acne.

The ball in Japan is slightly smaller than the American baseball, and it jumps off the bat. Japanese outfield dimensions are also smaller than those across the Pacific. These factors combine to inflate the stats of Japanses hitters, from high school all the way to the pros. But there was no overstating Hideki’s power. He crushed the ball, sending his home runs so far over the fences that outfielders sometimes didn’t bother turning around.

Hideki's power also caused opposing managers to pitch around him during his time at Seiryo. While this is standard practice in the States, it was highly unusual at that level of Japanese baseball. It was intentional walks, in fact, that made a national hero of Hideki. In the 1992 High School championships, which were broadcast nationally, he cranked out three mighty homers in the semifnals. In the final, he was issued five intentional passes.

As impressive as Hideki’s power display had been, the class he displayed while being ptiched around was the talk of the Japanese sports world the next day. Fans were outraged that the bat had been taken out of Hideki’s hands—and just as complimentary of his reaction.

This kind of star power is unusual for a young player, and the Yomiuri Giants—Japan’s unofficial “national” team—took notice. They made Hideki their #1 draft choice the following spring.

ON THE RISE

Hideki had always hoped to play for Hanshin, but how could he complain about the Giants? Owned by the Yomiuri newspaper conglomerate, they were his country’s most storied sports franchise—akin to the Yankees, Boston Celtics and Dallas Cowboys all rolled into one. The team's games were televised nationally, their stars were national heroes, and their manager, Shigeo Nagashima, was the most beloved baseball figure in all of Japan.

Hideki asked for #55 when he joined the team. The confident rookie confided in friends that he hoped to one day break Sadahuru Oh’s record of 55 homers in a season. Despite his high hopes, the 1993 season was one of adjustment for Hideki. He was converted to right field, an experiment that was not an immediate success.

Luckily, his teammates included a pair of ex-major leaguers who knew a thing or two about outfield play. In their days with the Toronto Blue Jays, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield had made up two thirds of the game’s best outfield. They were drawn to the teenager because of how he approached his sport. Whereas the typical Japanese hitter looked to direct the ball through holes and into open spaces, Hideki tried to drive the ball over everyone’s head nearly every at-bat. Barfield and Moseby got a kick out of the kid and were generous with their advice.

Hideki also got good advice from master batmaker Isokazu Kubota of Mizuno. He told the rookie to pick out a bat he liked and stick with it all year. That would enable him to form a close relationship with the piece of lumber and gain intimate knowledge of it. After a year, Hideki would also know what kind of adjustments to make for the following season. He has followed that advice ever since.

The 1993 season proved an interesting year for Hideki. He got into 57 games and batted .223 with 11 home runs. Though the stats suggest he was overmatched—and indeed he was on many occasions—he adored the cat-and-mouse games between pitcher and batter and thrived on the challenge of improving every day. The more layers of baseball that unfolded before him, the more he got wrapped up in the game.

The rest of the team mailed it in, however. The Giants finished under .500, the first time in 14 years they had done so. They lacked power and only the fine pitching of Masaki Saito and Masao Kida kept them competitive. Hideki watched as the crosstown Yakult Swallows won the Central League crown, and then defeated the Seibu Lions of the Pacific League in an exciting seven-game Japan Series.

The older players on the club seemed most excited about a new rule that granted veterans free agency after 10 seasons in the league. Hideki, by contrast, could barely imagine himself a decade in the future.

The 1994 campaign found Moseby and Barfield back in the States and Hideki as the team’s everyday right fielder. Nagashima told his second-year star that his tremendous bat speed would not be a true asset until he learned to be more selective at the plate. Hideki also needed to develop a feel for which breaking balls he could hit, which he couldn’t, and how to recognize a hanger on its way to the plate. Hideki worked with the Yomiuri coaches on those skills and made impressive strides. He finished the season with a .294 average—11th in the league—along with a very respectable 20 home runs. He also began a consecutive games streak that would last until he left Japanese baseball.

The Giants, who had not won a pennant since 1989, beat the Chunichi Dragons on the last day of the season for the Central League flag. The team got good years out of former big-league outfielders Henry Cotto and Dan Gladden and pitcher Jimmy Jones. The American batters combined for 33 homers, while Jones went 7-2. Hideki’s 20 dingers and Hiromitsu Ochiai’s 15 gave the Yomiuri club just enough muscle to get by.

The Giants dropped the opener in the Japan Series against the Seibu Lions, but then won four of the next five games to take the championship. The big hero was pitcher Hiromi Makahira, who twirled a 1-0 gem in Game 2 and won the finale, 3-1. The Giants survived a four-homer outburst by Lion star Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who would one day join the Giants. In his first season as a starter, Hideki earned a championship ring.

The 1995 season found Hideki playing next to his third different American centerfielder, former All-Star Shane Mack. Hideki learned a lot watching Mack, and by season’s end, he had become a reliable defensive player. He had another good year at the plate, batting .283 with 22 homers and 80 RBIs. Those numbers proved beyond a doubt that he had adjusted to pro pitching.

The only adjustment Hideki found difficult was living alone. In that respect, the most important part of “Team Godzilla” was his mother, who would travel to Tokyo every 10 days or so to clean her son's apartment, do his laundry, and see that he had enough food in the refrigerator. The visits continued throughout Hideki’s career with the Giants, as he never married or had a live-in girlfriend.

The Giants played winning ball all year in ’95. Mack and fellow American Jack Howell enjoyed strong seasons, Makahira had a good year on the mound, and Masaki Saito won 18 games—tops in all of Japan. In most seasons, that would have put the Giants in contention. But the Yakult Swallows ran away with the pennant.

The following spring, Hideki looked ready to have a breakout season. He was in command of every at-bat, and his lightning-fast swing was even faster thanks to off-season workouts. His forearms were a subject of much discussion. Though not McGwire-like, they showed that his time in the weight room was paying off.

Nagashima was no fool. He installed Hideki as the team’s cleanup hitter—a huge honor for such a young man. Hideki tore it up, challenging for the league home run crown right down to the last day of the season. He trailed Takeshi Yamasaki of the Chunichi Dragons by one homer and might have caught him had the Dragons not been the opponent in the final game. Chunichi hurlers walked Hideki four times.

Hideki’s consolation was another pennant for the Giants. The club played so-so ball through June. By early July, the Giants found themselves nearly 12 games behind the Hiroshima Carp. No one was running away with the Central league flag, however. Yomiuri bore down and good things started to happen. Saito and Balvino Galvez—who had replaced Jones—were lights-out, tying for the league lead with 16 victories apiece and finishing 1-2 in the ERA race. American import Jeff Manto was a bust, but Mack had a good year with 22 homers.

The big difference in the Giants, especially down the home stretch, was Hideki. Just 22, he torched Central League pitchers. By season’s end, the Giants were five games up, and Hideki was leading the league in runs and was among the leaders in homers, RBIs, batting and extra-base hits. He finished the year at .314 with 38 home runs and 99 RBIs—and was an easy pick for MVP.

The Giants met the Orix Blue Wave in the Japan Series and fell in five games. Ichiro Suzuki and company just had too much for the Yomiuri club.

After winning a pennant and MVP award, Hideki worked even harder in the off-season. For one thing, he knew enemy pitchers would really come after him in 1997. But he also started thinking about the “ultimate” challenge—playing in the Major Leagues. Countryman Hideo Nomo had enjoyed great success with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and like most Japaene players, Hideki wondered how a hitter might fare under the same circumstances. He was so intrigued by the prospect of playing in America that he secretly began taking English lessons.

That winter, in appreciation for his wonderful season, the Yomiuri club doubled Hideki’s salary from 80 million yen to 160 million. The Giants even offered a long-term deal—a great compliment. But Hideki told team officials that he preferred to improve year-by-year, and that is how he would like to be paid.

Hideki was handed the centerfield job as the 1997 season opened. The move made sense because Mack was no longer with the Giants, and the team had acquired Yoshinibu Takahashi, a natural right fielder. Hideki wasn’t going to make any highlight reels, but he had the skills and work ethic to become a dependable centerfielder.

While Hideki was busy mastering his new position, the rest of the Giants apparently forgot how to play. They had a disastrous year, finishing 20 games out of first place. The pitching was okay, but the Yomiuri offense went into the toilet. Luis de los Santos—a star in the Taiwan League—bottomed out in Japan, and slugger Pedro Castellano was even worse.

Surrounded by futility, Hideki did his best to carry the team himself. Though he just about duplicated his MVP numbers (.298, 37 homers and 103 RBIs), he couldn’t save the floundering Giants.

Hideki’s star quality came through, however, even though his team was lousy. Unlike most Japanese athletes, he was relaxed, almost laid back. His smile was quick and genuine, and though he was still shy, he was outgoing and warm to friends and even the occasional stranger. Through the long, frustrating season, Giant fans watched their young stud keep his chin up and defend the club’s honor. The country might have been koo-koo for Ichiro, but Hideki was fast becoming everyone’s adopted son.

The Giants got themselves back on track in 1998, winning 73 games and challenging the surprising Yokohama BayStars for the Central League pennant until falling off the pace in September. The team got solid hitting from Takayuki Shimizu, Yoshinobu Takahashi, Daisuke Motoki and a flashy young second baseman named Toshihisa Nishi.

Back at the helm of a thriving offense, Hideki was like a kid in a candy store. Time and again, he came to bat with men on base—and almost always got the job done. He finished the season with a league-high 100 RBIs. Followed in the lineup by solid hitters, Hideki also scored a league-best 103 runs. In addition, he blasted 34 homers, tops in Japanese baseball.

After the season, Hideki once again turned down a long-term deal. He was now being paid 350 million yen, right near the top of Japan’s salary structure.

In 1999, Hideki reached the 40-homer plateau for the first time, blasting 42 long balls to go with 100 runs, 95 RBIs and a .304 average. The team’s best player, however, was newcomer Koji Uehara, who won the Central league’s pitching Triple Crown. Uehara led all hurlers with 20 wins, 179 strikeouts and a 2.38 ERA. Unfortunately, the rest of the staff was only so-so, and the Giants finished second, six games behind Chunichi.

The Giants loaded up over the winter, adding an outstanding pitcher named Kikiyasa Kudo and third baseman Akira Eto, who would help to protect Hideki in the order. The teamstarted the 2000 season as the favorite in the Central League, but needed help from unexpected sources in order to make good on this prediction. Domingo Martinez, a power-hitting castoff from the Toronto Blue Jays, had a strong year, and Darrell May, an ex-major league pitcher discarded by the Hanshin Tigers, went 12-7 with a nifty 2.95 ERA.

Hideki was the rock of the lineup all year long. He batted .316 with 42 homers and 108 RBIs, and was the hands-down choice for MVP. He was also honored with a Golden Glove for fielding excellence—not bad for a converted third baseman. The Giants won the pennant by eight games over the Dragons, earning the right to face the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in the Japan Series.

The series was billed as a battle of MVPs, with Hideki facing off against first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka of the Hawks. Hideki homered in his first at-bat, but his team opened the series with a pair of frustrating lossess. The Giants responded by turning it up a notch and swept the final four games. Hideki homered and doubled in the finale with his parents in the stands, while May slammed the door on the Hawks.

The final stats told the story of the MVPs. Matsunaka managed just one hit against Giants’ pitching, while Hideki batted .381 with three homers and eight RBIs. He was named the series MVP.

Once again, the Giants offered Hideki a long-term deal. And once again he politely declined. Instead, he inked a one-year pact for 500 million yen—just the third Japanese player to reach that salary level. With Ichiro headed for the United States, rumors began that Hideki was considering the same plan. In truth, he had not yet decided, but he would definitely watch Ichiro with great interest. Although the two were substantially different hitters, both attacked the ball very aggresively. If Ichiro could make it, Hideki was sure he could as well.

The 2001 season got off to a roaring start for the Giants, as they beat up on the Hanshin Tigers, 17-3. Rookie catcher Shinnosuke Abe, charged with handling a championship staff, put a charge into the ball with two hits and four RBIs in his pro debut. That was a good sign since he was replacing longtime backstop Shinichi Murata.

Hideki actually got the club’s first hit of the year, a high-hopper over the pitcher’s head that he beat out to ignite a scoring rally. Ironically, this barely-notable play characterized his season. Though opposing pitchers still feared his power at the plate, he did as much damage playing little ball in '01. Hideki finished with 36 homers and 104 RBIs, but he was far more proud of his second Gold Glove and his first batting title. He almost won the home run crown, clouting three in a late-season game to tie the leader, Roberto Petagine.

Hideki wasn’t the only batter in the Giants’ lineup to hit in 2001. He combined with Takahashi, Kiyohara, Eto and Nishi to pump out 142 homers. A lousy pitching staff, however, doomed the club to a second-place finish. Yomiuri hurlers allowed more runs than any other club in the league.

Hideki turned down another long-term deal after the season, but he was still rewarded with the highest one-year salary in Japanese baseball history, 610 million yen. The Giants were now growing desperate, realizing that their young star might have his eye on the Major Leagues. Also complicating the situation for the club were slipping television ratings. The Giants were still Japan’s team, but their hold on the country was weakening. With Ichiro’s games with the Seattle Mariners being broadcast regularly in Japan, many fans had begun to turn to the American game. Another disturbing trend for the Giants was sagging attendance on the road. Losing their big star might be catastrophic for the organization.

Yomiuri chairman Tsuneo Watanabe—whose power dwarfed that of any baseball official in Japan, including the commissioner—basically offered Hideki a blank check to stay. But Ichiro’s MVP season for the Mariners sealed the deal. Hideki would play one more year in his homeland (fulfilling his 10-season obligation). If all went well, he would test the waters in America.

To his credit, Hideki was upfront about his intentions. After signing his record deal, he told reporters that he planned to make a run at the Triple Crown, become a free agent, and then consider the option of playing in the U.S. Aware of the Giants’ problems, he took it as a challenge to reverse tthe club’s fortunes before leaving Japan.

The impending loss of Hideki wasn’t the only change the Giants faced in 2002. The legendary Nagashema retired and was replaced as manager by Tatsunori Hara. The press was critical of the move. Nagashima had been regarded as a good motivator who left the details up to his coaches. Hara was a tinkerer, who might try to do too much and perhaps upset team chemistry.

Of course, with the offense the Giants were taking into the season, it would take a lot to mess things up. Leadoff hitter Nishi had a live bat, and third baseman Eto and leftfielder Shimizu were dependable all-around hitters. Yoshinobu Takahashi and veteran first sacker Kazuhiro Kiyohara joined Hideki in the middle of the lineup.

Hara stuck with Abe behind the plate, and his pitching staff included Koji Uehara, Yusaka Iriki, American import John Wasdin, old-timers Masumi Kuwata, Kimiyasi Kudo and Kaz Takeda, closer Hideki Okajima and a young reliever named Hiroki Sinada. It was a good group of hurlers that really came together as the season wore on.

The big story, of course, was whether Hideki would stay or go in 2003. Everyone agreed that he would not leave if he felt he had “unfinished business” in Japan. If he had a lackluster season, or if the Giants finished out of the money, he might remain with the club purely as a matter of pride.

MAKING HIS MARK

Hideki took the focus off '03 by embarking on a season for the ages in 2002. At mid-year, he was out in front in batting average, home runs and RBIs, and the Giants had established a double-digit lead over the Tigers and Swallows. That left the rest of the campaign for Japan to root for Hideki to capture the Triple Crown. Attendance rose, TV ratings skyrocketed, and the fans fell in love with Godzilla all over again.

The Giants clinched the pennant in early September, and Hideki sewed up the home run and RBI titles with a strong final month. But the batting race went down to the wire. Kosuke Fukodome of the Dragons matched Hideki hit for hit and opened up a narrow lead with just a few games left on the schedule. In the final regular season contest in the Tokyo Dome, Hideki belted a pair of opposite-field homers—the second against Ryota Igarashi, Japan’s hardest thrower—to make it 50 for the year. With one game left, however, he still needed to go 4-for-4 to win the Triple Crown. It wasn’t to be. Hideki took an 0-for-5 against the Carp and lost any chance at the batting title.

Hideki ended up leading the Central league with 50 homers and 107 RBIs. His .334 average was the best of his career. He won his third MVP award, gaining first-place votes on all but one of the 201 ballots cast.

Hideki got plenty of offensive support from Abe and Shimizu, both of whom enjoyed great years at the plate. On the hill, Uehara and Kuwata were the club’s top pitchers. The Giants won the pennant by 11 games and destroyed Seibu in the Japan Series.

In November, Hideki made it official: He would entertain offers from big-league clubs in America. In a tearful farewell, he promised the fans he would honor them and his country.

The Yankees were the most appealing team to Hideki. They had worldwide fame and a thirst for championships. The close proximity of the fence down the rightfield line in Yankee Stadium didn’t hurt, either. Hideki also found the Boston Red Sox interesting. They had a lot of tradition, and both Hideo Nomo and Tomo Ohka had pitched for the team and seemed to like it there. The New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles and Dodgers were in the running, too.

Most baseball insiders assumed hat it was a done deal with the Yankees. New York quietly backed out of its decades-long working agreement with the Nippon Ham Fighters and began talks in Manhattan and Tokyo with Yomiuri officials. Meanwhile, Hideki hired Arn Tellem of the SFX Sports Group as his agent. The ties between SFX and the Yankee organization were strong. On December 19, the Yankees annouced their signing of Hideki to a three-year pact worth around $21 million.

Viewed within the context of the Yankees-Giants agreement, Hideki’s signing likely involved a lot more than just a ballplayer selling himself to the highest bidder. The deal may have sown the seeds for new international baseball relationships, where players came packaged with marketing, merchandising and broadcasting rights.

Believe it or not, the sense of loss among Japanese fans was far greater than Ichiro’s leaving. He had played for a Kobe team that did not get much national exposure during the season. In fact, far more Japanese fans saw Ichiro compete as a Mariner than as a member of the Orix Blue Wave. Ichiro may have achieved rock-star status in Japan, especially among younger fans, but Hideki was the guy everyone wanted their daughter to marry. He was like family. Hideki was the star of the media-darling Giants and played virtually every one of his games before a nationwide television audience. Some fans were so distraught that they branded him a traitor.

But as soon as the 2003 campaign began, Hideki reassumed his role as national hero. The Yankees started the campaign in Toronto, and all the eyes of Japan were on the New York leftfielder. Conservative estimates said that one in three televisions in Hideki's homeland were tuned into Yanks' opener against the Blue Jays, even though it aired at 8:00 on a Monday morning. (The Toronto front office, anticipating a huge TV audience overseas, ran banner ads in Japanese behind home plate.) Hideki didn't disappoint, collecting a single and an RBI in an 8-4 victory.

Hideki hit in his next six games and made several nifty plays in the outfield. But his biggest moment came in New York's home opener against the Minnesota Twins. Striding to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, he crushed a 3-2 delivery from Joe Mays into the right-centerfield bleachers. Yankee Stadium exploded in cheers, as Hideki officially earned his pinstripes.

The grand slam also stamped Hideki as a player most dangerous in the clutch—a talent critical on a team that didn’t manufacture a whole lot of runs. It wasn’t that the New York lineup wasn’t powerful. With Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter at the top of the batting order and Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada in the middle, the Yanks had enough big bats. Manager Joe Torre knew that his team would score most often via the three-run homer.

In the all-or-nothing American League, that offensive philosophy would serve the club fine in the regular season. Also a plus was New York’s veteran pitching staff. Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens and David Wells comprised one of baseball’s deepest and most experienced rotations. Closer Mariano Rivera was the best in the business. Even with a muddled mixture of middle relievers, the Yankees appeared to be a lock to return to the postseason.

But injuries nagged the team all year long. Jeter missed six weeks with a dislocated right shoulder, Williams was out even longer with a bum knee, Soriano was slowed by hand injuries, and Giambi battled a series of bumps and bruises. In their absences, Hideki played every game and developed into the club’s most reliable hitter.

Early in the year, Hideki concentrated on putting the ball in play. He hit a lot of grounders and line drives. Fans griped about his lack of power, but it arrived in a big way during a spring series with the Cincinnati Reds, when he clouted a key homer and finally began driving the ball with authority. Meanwhile, his all-around game—including some sparkling defense in both left and center—was remarkably consistent.

The Red Sox pushed the Yanks from opening day for the division lead, and Hideki never cracked under the pressure. June was a particularly good month, as he batted a sizzling .394 with six homers and 29 RBIs. And unlike his countryman Ichiro, he didn’t fade down the stretch. Hideki finished the year as a leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year with a .287 bating average, 16 homers, 42 doubles and 106 RBIs.

New York, meanwhile, held off the Red Sox for first place in the AL East. That set up a first-round playoff meeting with the Twins. When Minnesota won Game 1, fans in the Bronx wondered what was wrong with the Yankees. Pettitte answered their concerns with a masterful performance to knot the series. In Game 3, Hideki lifted his team with a huge home run. Expecting Kyle Lohse to try to tie him up with hard stuff, he jumped all over a high fastball and hammered it into the Metrodome’s upper deck in rightfield. The Yanks went on to a 3-1 victory behind Clemens, and then closed out the Twins a day later.

Up next were the Red Sox in the ALCS. The series was a nailbiter from the very first pitch through Aaron Boone’s 11th inning homer to win Game 7. Along the way there were surprising pitching performances, bean balls, fights and lots of timely hitting. Hideki was right in the middle of the action. His double off Pedro Martinez in Game 3 drove home a crucial run in a 4-3 victory. He victimized the Boston ace with another two-bagger to ignite New York’s dramatic eight-inning rally in the decider. Rivera claimed honors as series MVP, but Hideki’s contributions certainly weren’t overlooked.

He continued his hot hitting in the World Series against the Florida Marlins. After the Yankees lost Game 1, he sparked them the following night with a long homer off Mark Redman in the bottom of the first. The blast gave New York a 3-0 lead, and Pettitte did the rest. In Game 3, Mussina and Josh Beckett locked horns in a classic pitching duel. With the Yanks trailing 1-0 in the eighth, Hideki took center stage again. Facing lefty Dontrelle Willis, he lined a single into left to put his team ahead 2-1. With Rivera protecting the lead, New York cruised to seize apparent control of the series.

The resilient Marlins fought back to win the next three and capture the second championship in the franchise’s brief history. Florida’s starting pitching shut down the Yankees, with Beckett finishing them off with a shutout in Game 6. Torre became so desperate for offense that he juggled the lineup, moving Hideki into the cleanup spot. The strategy didn’t work.

Despite a disappointing end to the season, Hideki’s rookie year was a major success. In fact, with the health of Williams always a question, fans were talking about switching Hideki permanently to center. His position in the heart of the order, however, wouldn’t change. Not even after several major acquisitions by the Yanks in the offseason. Sluggers Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez joined the club, as did pitchers Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez. New York and Boston—which added Curt Schilling—were again the favorites in the AL.

The 2004 campaign started with quite a bit of excitement for Hideki, as the Yankees opened against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Tokyo. His return to Japan created a national stir. Hideki was mobbed everywhere he went. On the field, he managed to stay focused. Hideki collected the first hit of the '04 season, a double off of Victor Zambrano. A day later, with his parents and former teammates in attendance, Hideki was presented with a samurai helmet at home plate. Energized by the honor, he lined a home run in a 12-1 rout by New York. The fans gave him a long standing ovation, a rarity in Japan, as he circled the bases.

Back in the Bronx, Hideki and the Yanks staggered through their next 10 games. During the span, he recorded just one RBI. Jet lag was offered as the culprit for New York's struggles.

Hideki began to show signs of life in May. With a better feel for big-league pitching, he was driving the ball with more authority. For the month, Hideki hit six homers and drove in 20 runs. His excellent play, combined with the hot hitting of Sheffield, gave the Bronx Bombers a big boost.

On July 11, Hideki delivered his 17th home run of the year, surpassing his 2003 total. His first-half numbers earned him a second straight trip to the All-Star game. One of eight Yankees on the roster, he went hitless in one plate appearance.

Consistency was Hideki's buzzword over the last three months of the regular season. He batted .333 in July and August, helping the Yanks build a huge lead in the AL East. When the Red Sox made a move late in the campaign, Hideki responded at the plate. In a pair of three-game series against Boston, he went 8-for-23 and scored eight runs. New York held off the Sox and took the division with a 101-61 record. Hideki improved in almost every statistical category, including a .298 batting average, 31 home runs, 108 RBIs, 109 runs and 88 walks.

The postseason kicked off in the Bronx with a familiar ALDS foe, the Twins. Johan Santana and Joe Nathan silenced the Yankee bats in Game 1, twirling a 2-0 victory. Hideki was the only pinstriper to look comfortable at the plate. He remained locked in throughout the series, as New York turned the tables on Minnesota with three straight wins. Hideki finished with seven hits (including a double and home run) and three RBIs.

Up next were the Red Sox in the ALCS. The Yanks jumped all over Schilling in Game 1, a 10-7 victory. Hideki again spearheaded the offense, going 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles and five RBIs. After a sparkling performance from Jon Leiber the following night, New York traveled to Boston up 2-0 in the series. Game 3 was a laugher, as the Yankees clobbered the Sox, 19-8. Hideki was the star, with two doubles, two homers and five RBIs. Boston's pitchers had no answer for him.

Hideki continued his offensive assault in Game 4, but Rivera blew a save and the Red Sox stayed alive. They rode that momentum to another victory at home to send the series back to New York. In this one, Hideki almost broke the contest open with the bases loaded in the sixth, scorching a liner to right with two out. But Trot Nixon made a nice catch, and the Yankee threat went by the boards.

Schilling got his revenge in Game 6 in the Bronx, forcing the decisive Game 7. Brown had nothing for the Yanks, and Vazquez was ineffective in relief. The Red Sox won easily to complete the greatest comeback in baseball history. Hideki provided one of the few thrills of the night for the hometown fans, doubling off Pedro Martinez in the seventh. For the Yanks, it was too little, too late.

The 2005 Yankees put essentially the same team on the field as the previou year, though their pitching was bolstered by the addition of Randy Johnson. Yet in May, as the team stagnated in the standings, it appeared New York had dug titself a hole too deep to get out of.

The bats came alive, however, and the pitching staff benefitted from some unlikely contributors, including journeymen Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon and rookie Chien-Ming Wang. Hideki had another nice season, with 23 homers, 116 RBIs and a .305 average. Despite a sore ankle, he played in every game and became just the first Yankee since Joe DiMaggio to knock in 100 runs in each of his first three major-league seasons.

A-Rod led the team (and the league) with 48 homers and a .610 slugging average, while Sheffield and Giambi turned in solid seasons. The Yankees and Red Sox ended up with same record, but New York earned the AL East crown by virtue of its superior record against the Bostonians.

The long march back to the postseason took a lot out of the players, and it showed in the ALDS against the Angels. They Yankees had leads in each of the five games, but Los Angeles won three to send New York home. Adding to the fans' frustration was the fact that the Chicago White Sox swept the Red Sox on the other side of the draw.

Over the winter, the Yankees re-signed Hideki to a four year-contract. Unfortunately, a broken wrist sidelined him for much of the 2006 season. He injured it on a sliding catch against the Red Sox in a May game and immediately underwent surgery. The injury ended a playing streak of 518 games. Four months later, Hideki returned to the New York lineup. The odd collapse of the Red Sox left the hobbled Yankees a clear path to the top of the division, and they had all but wrapped it up by the time Hideki finished his rehab.

Hideki went 4-for-4 in his first game back and finished the year with a .302 average and eight home runs in 51 games. The Yankees, however, fell again in the playoffs, this time to the hard-throwing Tigers. Hideki produced four hits in four games against Detroit, but like his teammates failed to produce in pivotal situations.

The Yankees started slowly again in 2007, dropping to the bottom of the standings in the spring. They regained their bearings over the summer and nailed down a playoff spot. Rodriguez carried the team in the first half and finally got help from his teammates when the weather warmed up. Hideki was a huge contributor to the cause, despite playing much of the year on a sore right knee.

Hideki finished with 25 home runs and 103 RBIs—both second on the club to A-Rod. Six of those long balls came during a 10-day span in July that boosted the Yankees back into Wild Card contention. Hideki hit 13 longballs in July and was named AL Player of the Month..

For the fourth year in a row, however, the Yankees came up empty in the postseason, losing the Division Series to the Clevelnd Indians. Hideki got little to hit from Tribe pitchers—and as a result, hit little.

After the season, the Yankees terminated Torre's contract. In the mood to do some more housecleaning—and in desperate need for starting pitchers—they listened to offers for previously untouchable players. That included Hideki, who would not have been opposed to relocating to the West Coast. For a time, the Yankees and San Francisco Giants discussed such a trade, but the names and numbers didn't mesh, so Hideki remained in pinstripes.

The injury bug hit the Yankees hard in 2008, and Hideki was one of the walking wounded. His aching knees became too painful to play, and he went on the DL in June. After nearly two months of rehab, he returned to the lineup, no longer an outfielder but as the team’s primary DH. He performed well in this role, batting .294 for the year. After the last out of the regular season, Hideki scheduled surgery. He would have plenty of time to rehab —the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since Hideki joined the team.

The 2009 Yankees were loaded with new talent and a new, relaxed attitude. All the key player wereThe nucleus of the team was healthy except for pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, but the acquisition of hurlers C.C. Sabathia and AJ Burnett more than made up for this loss. After some rocky games in April, the Yankees seemed to gain their balance and began a slow, steady march toward familiar territory, atop the AL East.

A few days after the All-Star break, Hideki smashed a walk-off homer to give New York a win that put the team in first place for good. A month later, he helped bury the Red Sox with a seven-RBI game. It was part of a torrid streak that saw him record multiple-homer games three times in the same week.

Hideki played in 142 contests, with manager Joe Girardi careful not to overuse him in a season that saw the Yankees win their division by a comfortable eight games. He finished with 28 homers—his second-highest total as a Yankee—and 90 RBIs to go with a .274 average. He also boosted his slugging average over .500.

During postseason victories over the Twins and Angels, Hideki drove in five runs in nine games and drew eight walks. Heading into the World Series against the Phillies, he knew he likely would be used only in the games played at Yankee Stadium. In Philadelphia, he would be Girardi’s first bat off the bench.

In Game 1, Hideki was one of just four Yankees to reach base against Cliff Lee, who pitched the Phillies to an early advantage in the Bronx. He collected two hits the next night, one of which was the game-winning homer off Pedro Martinez in the bottom of the sixth inning. Pedro tried to make Hideki fish for a low breaking ball. He reached down and golfed it into the stands. The Yankees scored once more for a 3–1 win to tie the series.

Hideki knew he would be lucky to get more than three good swings while the series relocated to Philly. In the top of the 8th inning of Game 3, Girardi had him bat for reliever Joba Chamberlain with two outs in a 7–4 game. Hideki went the other way with a Brett Myers pitch and clubbed it into the leftfield seats for the Yankees’ eighth and final run in an 8–5 win.

The Phillies were doing a decent job against New York’s power hitters, and they were happy to see Hideki remain on the bench. In Game 4, he led off the ninth inning of a 4–4 game. Philly fans breathed a sigh of relief when Brad Lidge got Hideki to pop out to Jimmy Rollins. Their happiness soon evaporated as Lidge self-destructed with two outs and yielded three runs to lose the game, 7–4.

With their backs against the wall, the Phillies won Game 5, 8–6. The Yankees made it extremely interesting in the bottom of the ninth against Ryan Madson. Hideki batted for Philip Hughes with no one out and a man on second. Madson stayed out of his wheelhouse, so Hideki guided a single through the left side to set up a potential game-tying rally. But the Phillies wriggled out of trouble to send the series back to New York.

Game 6 was Hideki’s signature moment as a major leaguer. Facing Martinez once again, he opened the Yankees’ scoring with a two-run homer in the bottom of the second inning. Pedro challenged him with fastballs, and he knocked the eighth pitch of the at-bat deep into the rightfield seats, scoring Rodriguez in front of him. An inning later, with Jeter and Damon on base, Hideki laced a single to center on an 0–2 pitch, as Martinez was again unable to put him away.

Hideki collected two more RBIs with a fifth-inning blast off of J.A. Happ, who had entered the game in relief of Chad Durbin. The lefty vs. lefty strategy didn’t pay off, as Hideki crashed one against the fence, driving in Mark Teixeira and A-Rod. That made the score 7–1. The Yankees went on to win their 27th championship.

Prior to Game Six, Damon, Rivera and Pettitte seemed the odds-on favorites to cop MVP honors. By the time the champagne corks were popping, Hideki was the man. He was the first full-time DH to win the award, and did so despite logging a mere 14 plate appearances. He made the most of those trips to the dish, collecting eight hits and a walk for a .615 batting average, 643 on-base percentage, and outrageous 1.385 slugging average. His eight RBIs led the Yankees, and he was the only Bronx Bomber to hit more than one home run.

With Hideki in his mid-30s and an injury risk, the common wisdom among baseball people was that the Yankees would not offer him a contract for 2010. And if that was the case, Hideki might actually consider retiring. Those decisions have become much more complicated. Pressed to predict the future during his MVP acceptance speech, all Hideki would say was he hoped it would work out.

With 17 years under his belt as a top-notch pro—and a fourth baseball championship—the temptation to “go out on top” might be strong. Then again, what team—in New York or anywhere else—wouldn’t be tempted to hand him a blank check for one more year? Either way, Hideki has proven that when Godzilla strikes, no enemy pitcher is safe.

HIDEKI THE PLAYER

Before Hideki came along, the only type of Japanese player who had not tried his hand in the majors was a slugger. That raised a lot of questions. Although the teams that scouted Hideki believed his skills would translate to big league playing fields, they couldn't ignore the fact that the Americans who win home run titles in Japan usually can't crack the starting lineups of most U.S. teams. What if the reverse was true?

Hideki ended this argument by hitting for power, albeit not with the same numbers he had in Japan. But a good hitter is a good hitter, and Hideki has found success using the entire field and making pitchers work extremely hard to get him out, especially with men on base. Few players in baseball hit the ball as hard with the same consistency.

Before knee problems relegated him to DH duties, Hideki had decent range (made better by his ability to read the ball off the bat), an average-but-accurate arm, and didn’t make many mistakes. In the locker room, he is respected for his work ethic and well liked for his desire to fit in. Ask the Yankees and their fans, and they will tell you how happy they have been to have him in pinstripes. He is a professional hitter with a knack for producing big hits in big spots.

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