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HARD DRIVES: Matsui losing shine in Big Apple

by John E. Gibson (Jul 15, 2009)

Hideki Matsui was not just a Giant in Yomiuri history. He was an institution.

Matsui's on-field postgame interviews featured a high-pitched "Arigato gozaimasu," that sent fans into a frenzy as much as his towering longballs, many of which seemed to come in key situations for the Giants.

His welcoming personality and polite demeanor only added to his popularity on and off the field. In his seventh season with the New York Yankees, though, the lefty slugger has lost the aura that garnered him the nickname Godzilla.

His larger-than-life image has shriveled--in unison with his homer total as a Yankee in recent years--although he remains part of the Pinstripers' fabric.

It would be hard to picture Matsui, a star in two global focal points, in the threads of a small-market team. But that is a likely scenario if the free agent doesn't power back from an assortment of ailments.

Matsui, treated by the coaching staff like a parcel marked "fragile," said the last thing on his mind was his free agency status and a not-so-bright future.

"Right now, I'm not thinking about that stuff at all," Matsui told Hard Drives last month at the new Yankee Stadium.

When asked about the likelihood of a sayonara tour in the form of a return to Japan, he vowed he would slug it out in the United States until he gets the thumb.

"I want to play as long as I can here and I'm not thinking about what's going to happen after that."

The fact, though, is that he is already playing a condensed role on the field, only hitting enough to earn more at-bats but not enough to strike fear in opposing pitchers.

That means he's also a less-important figure in the Yankee marketing machine, although the 35-year-old outfielder-turned-designated hitter still helps the Pinstripers extract some juicy drops from Japanese fans with disposable income.

Matsui wouldn't budge when pressed on the idea of playing for another club, offering the tiresome, "I'm focused on what I can do for the team right now."

But Matsui, a career .295 hitter with the Yankees, has to be thinking about the future.

The problem is his stock is falling.

The new stadium, recently tabbed the Bronx Beltway by fans who voted in New York Daily News and ESPN Web site polls, has been ripped as a bandbox for yielding 142 home runs (a big league-high 3.38 per game) by the All-Star break. In particular, right field has drawn fierce criticism because of the way the balls seem to jump into the stands.

Matsui has 14 homers, nine of them at home and all of those to right. That suggests his shots are riding the alleged jet stream there, although he doesn't think the ball is reacting differently at the new digs.

"I really haven't gotten the sense that that's the case," Matsui said about the winds being blamed for the inflated homer total.

"When I hit in batting practice, I really don't see much difference [from the old park]. In games we have won, I guess there have been a high number of home runs, but as for the ball carrying or the ball sailing out here--I don't know about that."

Matsui hit a career-best 50 longballs with Yomiuri in 2002--his last year there--and in New York had a season-best 31 in 2004.

He is close to a pace that would match his 2004 numbers, despite a role that often has him making limited appearances, many as a pinch-hitter.

Injuries rarely kept him off the turf in his years with Yomiuri, but he has been a training table regular in New York.

His left wrist was the first major incident, snapping back in a gruesome break in 2006. Shoulder and knee problems have followed and he admitted he is still "unable to play in the field."

His pregame running appears designed more to preserve rather than to progress. "I have good days and bad days, but I'm working hard every day to raise my level of play, and I'm doing well now."

But in his present state, he is no longer a major New York attraction, and all the polishing probably won't keep him in the Big Apple.


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