Hideki Matsui made the jump from Japan to the Major Leagues 15 years ago today
Few Yankees in the 21st century have been as popular as former outfielder Hideki Matsui, and even fewer arrived in New York with higher expectations. This was because Matsui was no ordinary rookie in 2003 -- he was already a superstar in Japan.
Matsui spent a decade playing for Nippon Professional Baseball's premier team, the Yomiuri Giants, debuting at just 19 years old in 1994. The stakes were high there, too: Matsui was Yomiuri's first-round pick after a legendary high school career. He faced the pressure head on, and it didn't take him long to become the league's most feared slugger:
During his 10 years in Japan, Matsui won three MVPs and clubbed 332 home runs, earning the nickname "Godzilla" as the Giants captured three Japan Series championships. He was clearly ready for a new challenge as he approached his 29th birthday.
After the 2002 campaign, Matsui announced that he would try to play his next season in the United States. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times reported that several teams pushed for his attention, most notably the Mets, Dodgers, Red Sox, Mariners and Orioles.
The Yankees, however, were determined to add another star to their roster, and they really liked Matsui. The two sides came to an agreement, and on Dec. 19, 2002, Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees. A month later, they introduced him and Matsui put on the pinstripes for the first time:
Matsui later revealed that the Yankees were always his first choice, and he was ready to chase postseason glory. "I will do whatever I can to help the Yankees win a world championship," he said to the media.
It didn't take long for Matsui to make an impression on his new fans: In his first game at Yankee Stadium, he clubbed a grand slam against the Twins.
By the end of the year, Matsui had put together an All-Star season and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year race. He also became the first Japanese player to ever homer in a World Series game.
The Yankees lost the 2003 Fall Classic to the Marlins, but when Matsui made his return to October's biggest stage six years later, he didn't let the opportunity to deliver on his word slip away. He homered three times against the Phillies in the series and drove in six runs in the decisive Game 6, becoming the World Series MVP as the Yankees won their 27th title:
Go go Godzilla, indeed.