World Series MVP Matsui motors on

TEMPE, Ariz. – If his final hours in New York City were spent in poetic farewell, Hideki Matsui(notes) missed the poignancy.

It simply never entered his head.

Taking down the Philadelphia Phillies an at-bat at a time, driving the New York Yankees to their first championship in almost a decade, drawing might from wobbly legs – he’d not really considered the falling curtain.

He’d never thought to look up.

Hideki Matsui, now with the Angels, hit 28 home runs for the Yankees in 2009.
(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

That’s not to say, however, it didn’t all happen that way.

On that wintry November night at Yankee Stadium, before more than 50,000 pinstripe-weaned, clock-watching citizens, Matsui said his goodbyes. In the manner by which he carried himself for seven seasons there, he spared them the emotional outbursts and hit the sayonara out of the ball.

In a night that, including the party, would bleed into morning, Matsui came to bat three times in the first five innings of the final game of the World Series, twice against Yankees villain Pedro Martinez(notes). He homered, singled and doubled. He drove in six of the Yankees’ seven runs. In his final moments in the uniform, or what hadn’t been stripped off amid the champagne cleansing, he was handed the World Series MVP trophy.

Everyone was so busy saying hello, finally, to Alex Rodriguez(notes), that they’d nearly forgotten to say goodbye to Hideki Matsui. Then, for that moment, he stood as tall as any of the legendary Yankees, saving the decade.

There are few heroes like Yankee heroes. Fewer still are Yankee heroes that become Yankee legends that are gone the next day, which is all lost on Matsui.

“I like New York and having been there for a long time it’s a city that I love,” Matsui said Thursday afternoon, having worn red for another day. “Obviously, I love the Yankees as well. But at the moment I made my decision in my mind it was time to move on. My mind is clear.”

Early offseason conversations with the Yankees proved futile. By mid-December, accompanied by talk his knees could not carry him in left field and might soon fatally slow his swing, he agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. They’d pay him $6 million for a year and promised to keep an open mind about left-field possibilities.

A couple days later, still jockeying with Johnny Damon(notes), the Yankees signed the younger – and equally as fragile – Nick Johnson(notes) for Matsui’s job.

“It’s a new jersey, a new team,” Matsui said. “I’ve been with teams for long periods of time. But regardless of where I play, baseball is baseball. It’s not going to change. When I went from the Yomiuri Giants to the Yankees, I didn’t change anything. Coming from the Yankees to the Angels, nothing’s going to change as far as baseball.”

He did his time, made his friends, got his hits, won his championship and loved it all. He was called a wonderful teammate by Derek Jeter(notes), who is discerning on the matter. He was World Series MVP in just 13 at-bats.

Matsui, like the hitter who erases every previous at-bat to be in the moment of the current one, took his new place in the clubhouse between Torii Hunter(notes) and Kendry Morales(notes) (the same way they are aligned in the batting order) and let the baseball be the baseball. Already, he’s made an impact. On Wednesday afternoon he pulled a ball hard and far (and foul) down the right-field line, where it caromed off the clubhouse siding and shattered team owner Arte Moreno’s car windshield.

“Matsui!” Moreno cried Thursday afternoon, the first he’d seen of his cleanup hitter since the insurance estimates had come back. “Thanks for the ball!”

Matsui flushed and played along.

“Any time,” he said, laughing.

They shook hands.

“Everything good? Everything OK?” Moreno asked.

“Yes,” Matsui answered. “Thank you.”

He is acclimating to red, having been teammates with Bobby Abreu(notes) and, for a short time, Juan Rivera(notes) in New York. He has been to dinner twice with Hunter, the first of which they discovered their relationship actually goes back almost 20 years, to the 1992 Goodwill Games in Korea. Hunter was Team USA’s center fielder; Matsui was Japan’s third baseman.

Ten years later, during a tour of major leaguers in Japan, Hunter stared at Matsui, then a center fielder and said to no one in particular, “I know that guy. Where do I know him from?” Across the field, Matsui was asking the same thing about Hunter.

Over dinner, Hunter was probing Matsui about baseball in Japan, the type of ball they play there, the comparisons between our game and theirs. Then he asked, by the way, if he maybe knew this guy who played third base for Japan in Seoul all those years ago.

“That was me,” Matsui said. “You were that center fielder?”

Small world.

“It is,” Matsui agreed. “I knew I’d seen him somewhere. My teammates kept talking me out of it. It was a very pleasant surprise.”

Hunter calls Matsui “the quietest, clutchest hitter in baseball,” and the Angels hope there’s at least another year of that left in him. Cactus League scouts have their doubts. They see heavy legs. They see a bat losing its quickness. They’ve been fooled before in March, however, and Matsui says his knees feel fine. Manager Mike Scioscia says the Angels are a better team if he can work Matsui into his outfield, but he values Matsui’s bat more, so he will see what the season brings.

All of which leaves Matsui confidently preparing for another season. He is neither buoyed by that final night in the Bronx nor saddened by his departure. That was yesterday. It is gone. There would be no spectacle.

“As far as here,” he said, “everything has been good so far.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 26, 2010