Matsui and Ichirō: Tracking the Orbits of Two SuperstarsSociety
Last December was an emotional month for Major League Baseball’s two best-known Japanese imports, Suzuki Ichirō and Matsui Hideki. On December 19, Ichirō (age 39) extended his distinguished career by signing a two-year contract with the New York Yankees. Eight days later, Matsui—Ichirō’s junior by one year and a former Yankee himself—announced his retirement from professional baseball.
Asked to comment on Matsui’s departure, Ichirō said: “We once spent hours talking and I found it fascinating because he and I look at things so differently. But he’s the only active pro baseball player that I’ve known since I was in middle school, and it’s just really sad to think he’s hanging up his uniform.”
As two Japanese pro baseball icons of roughly the same age, both with highly successful careers in Major League Baseball, Ichirō and Matsui have inevitably been the subjects of comparison—perhaps more than any other two Japanese athletes. Yet comparing them is a bit like measuring apples against oranges, so different is their style.
Closing the Power Gap (Almost)
Matsui Hideki, affectionately known as Godzilla, was the first Japanese power hitter to compete in America’s major leagues. When he left Japan and the Yomiuri Giants after the 2002 season to don the New York Yankees’ famous pinstripe uniform, Matsui was at the peak of his career as Japan’s reigning home-run king. In fact, that season he had become the first Japanese slugger in the Nippon Professional Baseball leagues to hit 50 home runs since Ochiai Hiromitsu 16 years earlier.
Few in Japan doubted that Matsui could hold his own with America’s top sluggers; some predicted consecutive 40-home-run seasons, if not the MLB home run crown itself.
This was already eight years after Japanese pitching ace Nomo Hideo had blazed a trail with his successful transition to Major League Baseball. In his first MLB season in 1995, Nomo led the league in strikeouts. Later he became only the fourth player in history to throw a no-hitter in both the National League and the American League.
Ichirō was the first Japanese-born position player on an MLB team. In 2001, the same year he debuted with the Seattle Mariners, he led the American League in batting average and stolen bases and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. As an outfielder, he electrified fans with the power and accuracy of his throwing arm.
Between them, Nomo and Ichirō had convinced the Japanese that their finest ballplayers were indeed capable of competing in MLB—at least in positions that depend on speed and precision. But the power gap seemed harder to close. Perhaps it was inevitable that Japanese fans would look to their top slugger, Matsui Hideki, to meet that final challenge.
Thrilling Memories and Crushing Setbacks
Perhaps it was also inevitable that Matsui’s statistics would fall short of Japanese expectations. He never did reach the 40-home-run mark. In fact, he only passed the 30-HR mark once, in 2004.
Matsui’s achievement lay elsewhere. He was the consummate clutch player, rising to the occasion and delivering for the fans when it mattered most. Like his mentor Nagashima Shigeo—one of Japanese baseball’s best-loved sluggers and later the Yomiuri Giants manager—Matsui built a name and a legacy for himself from kioku (memories), not from kiroku (records). His MLB career was replete with memorable moments, but perhaps the crowning achievement was his role in the 2009 World Series that the Yankees captured on November 4, which earned him the title of series MVP. The nickname “Mister October” belongs to Reggie Jackson, whose postseason performance helped power the Yankees to three straight championships. But Matsui was a strong candidate for “Mister November.”
Matsui won a place in the hearts of Yankees fans during his years with the team. Yet just weeks after propelling his beloved team to a world championship, he had to leave New York for Anaheim, after the Yankees decided to release him. Despite the shocks and disappointments along the way, Matsui’s big-league career may have given the Japanese a clearer perspective on the harsh realities of Major League Baseball, where not even a hero’s position is ever really secure.
Rekindling the Passion
Ichirō’s opportunity to wear the Yankee pinstripes came only in July 2012, two and a half years after Matsui’s departure. In his 12 seasons with the Mariners, Ichirō had achieved more than most pro baseball players even dream of accomplishing, including a major-league record of ten consecutive 200-hit seasons. What did he stand to gain by uprooting himself so late in his career? Ichirō’s answer was characteristically to the point: “I’m switching from the least winning team to the most winning team.”
The precision Japanese hit-making machine known to the world as Ichirō had shown signs of wear in recent years. In 2011, his season batting average fell to .272, dipping below .300 for the first time. Coming in the midst of a protracted slump, the Yankees’ offer must have seemed like a godsend.
Every major leaguer hankers after a championship ring. While Ichirō played with the Mariners, the world championship remained a dream; with the Yankees, it was well within reach. Just as important, though, was the rejuvenating effect of joining a roster of superstars and playing on one of the most talented teams in pro baseball. Ichirō doubtless saw the trade as a way to rekindle the youthful passion and ambition that had brought him to America’s shores in the first place.
His gamble paid off. In the 2012 season, Ichirō batted .261 as a Mariner and .322 as a Yankee. Now, with a freshly inked contract to play in New York for another two years, his passion and genius for baseball are evident once again.
How does Ichirō envision his final exit from pro baseball? One imagines he has ideas on the subject, but we can only speculate. My guess is that his thoughts are too occupied with the game—figuring out how to get a bead on a pitcher’s blistering fastball or wicked breaking ball and smack it out to the exact spot on the field that no one is covering—to dwell on things like retirement. Approaching 40, Suzuki Ichirō remains the quintessential “boy of summer.”
NYY (New York Yankees); LAA (Los Angeles Angels); OAK (Oakland Athletics);TB (Tampa Bay Rays)
SEA (Seattle Mariners)(Originally written in Japanese on January 15, 2013. Title photo: A moment of Matsui Hideki, as a Yankee, hitting a game-tying home run at Yankee Stadium, right, and Ichirō, who had played 12 seasons in Seattle. Photos by the Sankei Shimbun.)