A Little Respect
Godzilla has left New York. Hideki Matsui, the man who led the New York Yankees to victory in the 2009 World Series, is starting 2010 with the Los Angeles Angels. He signed with the American League West Division team only a few days after he became eligible for free agency last fall, despite the desire of most Yankee fans to see him return. What’s more, he signed a one-year contract for only $6.5 million, about half the salary he made last year. That has to be a first for a World Series MVP.
This is symptomatic in part of the new economic realities in Major League Baseball. The Yankees were ordered to trim their payroll by $20 million. But also, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman did not believe that Matsui, with his chronically bad 35-year-old knees, was able to play the field anymore and could only be a designated hitter, a spot that Yankees Manager Joe Girardi also wanted several veteran stars to share, not just the slugger from Japan. It is likely that Matsui’s agent, Arn Tellum, told his client there would only be a few offers, presumably from teams in the American League, where the DH rule is in effect. For Matsui that meant only Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston – major-league cities where his wife could keep a job and which had teams that had a chance to win another World Series.
With Matsui’s departure from the Big Apple, it is time to recognize his singular achievements there. He was unique in that city. One of a kind. For even in celebrity-rich New York, he was beloved and recognized for being a gentleman – without ever uttering a word of English. All Matsui’s interviews, even his World Series MVP-hero interview, were conducted in Japanese through an interpreter (although he did know enough English to order from a restaurant menu and do his dry cleaning). However, his demeanor and presence made New Yorkers like and respect him, all the same.
Matsui never refused a fan’s request for an autograph or a media request for an interview. In 2006, he broke his wrist and publicly apologized for missing half a season and letting the fans down. It was perhaps the first time a New York Yankee ever apologized like that. Wrote L.A. Times columnist Tom Plate: “In the age of the coddled, overpaid, agent-protected, totally obnoxious superstar athlete, Matsui from Japan exceeded his greatness as an individual player with great dignity as a human being and as a team player. …The Matsui ‘I’m sorry’ rang across America like the ringing of some new Liberty Bell.”
Then there was also the fact that every year during spring training, Matsui took the Yankees-beat writers out to dinner, perhaps the only Yankee in the history of the franchise to do such a thing. And at the end of the first such dinner, he handed out gifts to each of the correspondents, including items from his personal collection of adult videos. New York writers can be merciless, especially to newcomers who do not live up to their hype. But when Matsui, hailed as the Babe Ruth from Japan, struggled in the early going, the New York press was less vitriolic than one might have expected. Perhaps it was the porn effect.
Matsui never won a home-run title, but several studies showed him to be the most reliable clutch hitter on the team – indeed, some said, in the entire league. But with his World Series heroics, Godzilla attained a special kind of greatness. His two home runs and six RBIs in the final game put him on par with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and other post-season heroes in the Yankee pantheon. Moreover, in the process, he also accomplished something that in a century and a half no political or other figure from Japan ever came close to achieving, when he appeared in the Yankees victory parade. Not only did Matsui’s feat dominate the sports media the next day, but for the first time in history, throngs of New Yorkers could be seen wildly cheering a Japanese as he rode down the Canyon of Heroes in the victory parade, yelling “MVP,” “MVP,” and “Bring back Matsui” – and without, apparently, giving that much consideration to his nationality. With this demonstration, a brave new threshold was crossed and a new type of equality between Japanese and Americans reached.
Baseball has long been a cultural nexus between the U.S. and Japan. American professors introduced the game to their Japanese students in the early 1870s, and it became the national sport in 1896, after a team from the elite First Higher School of Tokyo soundly defeated a heavily favored squad of Americans from the Yokohama Athletic and Country Club in a series of widely publicized games – the first formal matches between Japanese and Americans. Ichiko, as it was then known, grafted the principles of the martial arts onto the game, and the club’s intense “practice-until-you-die” routine became the template for all of Japanese baseball for the next century and more. A million fans came out to cheer Babe Ruth parade down the Ginza in 1934 when he visited Japan with a group of MLB all-stars, and cheered even louder when a young pitcher named Eiji Sawamura shut him down in a 1-0 loss. During World War II, Japanese soldiers were heard to shout the insult “Babe Ruth is a bum” in the jungles of the South Pacific, and when Sadaharu Oh, who honed his batting form by swinging a samurai sword, surpassed American star Hank Aaron’s career world-home-run record in 1977, it was one of that year’s biggest news stories.
However, it was duly noted by Japanese how little respect or indeed attention the Americans actually paid to the Japanese version of the game or to Japan in general, for that matter. Most Americans were surprised to learn that Japanese even played baseball and indeed could not even point out Japan on a map. The pop song Sukiyaki sung by Kyu Sakamoto was as close as most Americans came to Japanese culture.
It wasn’t until Kintetsu Buffaloes pitching star Hideo Nomo found a loophole in the Japanese player contract and joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 that things began to change. With his trademark “tornado” windup, he won 13 games, captured the Rookie of the Year award and sparked a wave of “Nomomania” in Southern California, which all of Japan stopped to watch on Jumbotrons around the country. When Orix BlueWave outfielder Ichiro Suzuki migrated to the Seattle Mariners and became an instant superstar, going on in 2004 to break the single-season hits record held by George Sisler, the Asahi Shimbun editorialized: “Japanese were once seen in the U.S. as a ‘faceless’ people obsessed with exporting cars and consumer electronics. The excellent play of the Japanese players and their positive personalities have changed the American image of the Japanese.” Added prize-winning journalist Midori Masujima: “Having Japanese baseball heroes in MLB helped ease a complex Japan had toward the U.S. in many ways.”
Japanese pride was further heightened by Team Japan’s triumphs in the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic, which were some of the most-watched programs in Japanese TV history. The 2006 final, for example, was watched by one of every two Japanese. Water usage was said to have increased by 25 percent between innings. An additional boost to the national ego was provided by the Boston Red Sox in late 2006 when they paid a record $105 million for the services of pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
By this time, the U.S.-Japan baseball relationship had clearly flipped. It used to be that aging MLB stars past their prime went to Japan for one last fat contract, to be met at the airport by press hordes. Now it was Japanese stars who were drenched in money and media. Dice-K was given a personal trainer, chef, therapist, chauffeur, hyperbaric chamber and several first-class tickets back and forth across the Pacific for his family. Perks like that were never given to gaijin in Japan.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the performance by Matsui in the 2009 World Series, when he hit .615, smacked three home runs and drove in a record-tying six runs in the final game. He had eight RBIs in all and might even have done more had he not been reduced to sitting on the bench in three games because of his poor fielding. Matsui showed that Japanese could not only pitch well and slap singles, but hit the towering long ball as well. He also showed that a Japanese could be adored as passionately as any American or Latin player, as the parade in New York demonstrated.
Not even Ichiro could manage that level of attention in the U.S. On Sept. 13, 2009, Ichiro broke a record that had stood for over 100 years when he got his 200th hit for the ninth season in a row. It was a remarkable achievement, combining batting artistry, durability and dedication. Indeed, one might argue that Ichiro’s feat in the first nine years of his MLB career is the single-greatest sustained display of hitting on the record books.
But the record Ichiro broke was from such a very distant time, of which Americans have no living memory and no moving images to view. He also broke the record in Seattle, which is not a giant media center, and he did it on the heels of Derek Jeter breaking the all-time-hits record for the New York Yankees, surpassing the great Lou Gehrig. Ichiro’s feat was lost in the overwhelming media coverage of that Sept. 9 event. Jeter was lionized in every sports media venue. There was a full-page photo of Derek Jeter in USA Today. Moreover, in a nationally televised interview on Sept. 20, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Jeter’s record-breaking feat and said not a peep about Ichiro Suzuki.
Then there is the fact that Ichiro’s record was so far out of the ordinary that sports fans and commentators didn’t know what to make of it. Ichiro’s game is similar to that of the 1890s, with its infield “Baltimore Chop” hits, and so unlike the MLB game of today, with its emphasis on raw power.
Winning the World Series by hitting big home runs in Yankee Stadium, perhaps the world’s greatest sports venue, in the world’s greatest city, that was something everyone paid attention to. Matsui’s feat put the reputation of the Japanese player – and perhaps the Japanese people – on a whole new level.
As Robert M. Orr, head of the Panasonic Foundation and a long-time fan of the game on both sides of the Pacific, put it: “You might say that Matsui is the equalizer in the flesh. He is an example of ‘people power’ achieving what ‘leader power’ wants to but usually can’t.”
An indication of the high regard Japan has for Matsui is the recent decision by the Japan Post Network to issue a set of stamps commemorating Matsui’s MVP, an honor usually reserved for retired – or dead – heroes.
To many Japanese fans, the Yankees were the only team Matsui could possibly play for. He has always been a top-shelf player. He was a star in Japan’s prestigious Koshien High School tournament. He played his entire career for the nation’s most elite professional team, the Tokyo Giants. By cutting Matsui loose, the Yankees will lose many Japanese fans, as well as millions of dollars of sponsorship from Japanese companies. The NHK morning telecasts of Yankee games will no longer be a daily staple in Japan, as viewers shift their allegiance to the Los Angeles Angels, and the A.L. West rivalry between the Angels and the Mariners will become the center of attention. The name of Brian Cashman will be uttered with some disgust.
But at least in 2015, when Matsui is invited back for a Yankees old-timers game, he will be cheered as loudly as Jackson and Jeter and Berra and any of the other Yankee gods. And the symbolism of that event will not go unnoticed back in Tokyo. ❶