TOKYO - No longer the fearsome, fire-breathing “Godzilla” of old, injury-ravaged Hideki Matsui retired from baseball with his head held high and as a huge source of national pride for Japan.
The 38-year-old slugger, World Series MVP in 2009 with the New York Yankees, helped put Japanese baseball on the map after the trail-blazing Hideo Nomo and mercurial Ichiro Suzuki had enjoyed success across the Pacific.
In one interview, Matsui said he batted right-handed as a child but when he began playing with his older brother and friends, he was so good his embarrassed sibling forced him to switch hands.
He never looked back, thereafter hitting left-handed and later earning the nickname “Godzilla” from Japanese fans and media for his ferocious ball-striking.
Matsui ended a glittering 20-year career - split evenly between Japan and Major League Baseball - dignity intact after acknowledging his powers had waned.
He told a news conference in New York on Thursday: “I have no regrets. Playing for the Yankees was an honour and I felt blessed to be there every day.”
Matsui’s raw power attracted attention while still at a tender age, drawing five straight intentional walks in a game at Japan’s national high school tournament in 1992.
Considered unsportsmanlike, the incident sparked debate in the media and became a talking point nationwide, while Matsui’s samurai-like stoicism at being walked earned great praise.
He was already a huge celebrity in Japan when he moved to the bright lights of New York in 2003, signing a three-year deal worth $21 million from Japan’s Yomiuri Giants.
Matsui played for the Bronx Bombers for seven of his 10 seasons in the majors and was twice an All-Star while with the storied ballclub.
He hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee stadium in 2003 but will be best remembered for driving in six RBI’s in the clinching Games Six of the 2009 World Series.
Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to win World Series MVP honours, going 8-for-13 with three home runs as the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-2.
He batted .282 with 760 RBI’s during his time with the Yankees, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, belting 175 home runs.
Matsui smacked 507 career homers, 332 with Japan’s most popular club the Giants. A free agent since being released by Tampa Bay in August, Matsui was about more than numbers.
“By taking on the challenge of playing for the fabled Yankees, he has had an enormous influence on the development of baseball in Japan,” Japan’s home run king Sadaharu Oh remarked.
“Having walked the path that he himself chose with such success, he can have no regrets,” added Oh, who owns the world career home run record with 868. “He’s done a great job.”
Matsui quickly dashed hopes of a return to the Giants or Japanese baseball, where he was one of the game’s most dominant hitters
“The Giants are like home for me,” he said. “If I returned, many fans would expect to see me as I was 10 years ago and to be honest I don’t have the confidence of getting that back.”
Matsui’s retirement prompted a flood of tributes, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter saying: “I’ve had a lot of team mates over the years but I will always consider Hideki one of my favourites.”
Japanese politicians chimed in, while the news flashed across television screens since the announcement was broadcast live at 7 a.m. on Friday in his home country.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida expressed sadness, adding that “the fact he provided so much excitement to baseball fans in Japan and America is a truly remarkable achievement”.
More comfortable in the glare of public scrutiny than Ichiro, who broke a string of MLB records while at the Seattle Mariners but now with the Yankees, Matsui went out with typical grace.
He had dutifully telephoned his former mentor Shigeo Nagashima, Matsui’s manager when he made his professional debut for the Giants in 1993.
“He said he was a little sad but said I’d done well,” said Matsui. “Coach Nagashima was the foundation for everything that happened to me in baseball. He taught me everything.”
Nagashima reluctantly agreed Matsui had made the correct decision, acknowledging the player would have agonised over it.
“He’s been battling knee injuries for the past two or three years,” Nagashima said. “I think he wanted to preserve the image fans cherished rather than continue playing through the pain.”
Joe Torre, Matsui’s manager for his first five years at the Yankees, also paid a glowing tribute.
“Hideki came to the Yankees as a superstar and immediately became a team favourite,” he said. “Not only for his talent but for the unselfishness he brought to the game every day.
”Hideki Matsui is a winner and I was proud to be his manager.“