Huff, Matsui have similar skills, different stories

December 26th, 2017

Day 2 of the Hall of Fame ballot: Aubrey Huff and Hideki Matsui
In 2004, Aubrey Huff hit .297 with 29 home runs and 104 RBIs for the Rays. That same year, Hideki Matsui hit .298 with 31 home runs and 108 RBIs for the Yankees.
They were similar hitters, a couple of big lefty bats with power in the American League East. When their careers ended, they had comparable Major League numbers. Huff slugged .464 over a 13-year career; Matsui slugged .462. Huff hit .278 and and finished his big league career with 20.2 WAR. Matsui hit .282 and finished his career with 21.3 WAR.
Their strengths (power and relative lack of strikeouts) and weaknesses (lack of speed and subpar defense) were practically identical.
This is the problem of getting too deep into comparisons, because the careers of Huff and Matsui were nothing alike.
Huff was a troubled soul who clung to baseball with all he had. Perhaps it was because, for a time, it was all he had. He was 6 when his father, Aubrey II, was killed in a domestic dispute that did not involve him. Huff recalled that when it happened, he was watching "The Transformers" on television. Later in life, he would get Transformers tattoos on each of his shoulder blades.
He spent much of his teenage years in a backyard batting cage that his mother bought him with whatever money she could scrape up from working at the local grocery store. Huff was not a natural baseball player; his best sport was basketball. But there was something about the solitary activity of hitting baseballs, day after day, that spoke to him.
Huff went to a junior college and hit, then he went to the University of Miami and hit, and after he was drafted in the fifth round by Tampa Bay, he went to the Minors and hit. It was never clear what position he could play, but Huff was a hitter of the first order. In his first full Major League season, 2003, he hit .311 with 47 doubles, 34 homers, 107 RBIs and a career-high .922 OPS.
But while he kept finding ways to hit on the field, his life off the field often spiraled out of control. Huff wrote about this in detail in his book, "Baseball Junkie."
"I was an absolute scumbag for most of my life," he writes in his introduction, before telling stories of an Adderall addiction, drunken nights gambling away incredible sums of money at casinos, drunk driving and cheating on his wife. He said that at his low point, he found himself in a closet with a cocked gun pressed against his own head.
All the while, Huff became something of a cult hero with the Giants (in 2010 he slugged .506, scored 100 runs, drove in 86 and finished seventh in the MVP voting) and for his rowdy public persona, which included wearing what he called "the rally thong." In his book, he remembered being at a World Series victory parade and thinking, "Why am I not happy?"
After he retired, Huff has reconnected with his wife and family and talked often about becoming a better man.
Matsui, it's fair to say, lived a very different baseball life.
Do you know why, for instance, Matsui began batting left-handed? According to writer Robert Whiting, Hideki was a natural right-handed hitter, but he was so good as a kid, so much better in fact than players three and four years older, that he handicapped himself and began hitting left-handed to avoid embarrassing anyone.
Matsui was an athletic marvel. He became a first-degree judo black belt. He won a sumo tournament. He began playing year-round baseball when he was 14, and he immediately hit such extraordinarily long home runs that people all around the country began talking about him long before he joined the Yomiuri Giants. Whiting tells a wonderful story about how one of Matsui's youth managers would have the usual complement of signs for hitters: "take" and "bunt." He added a third sign for Matsui: "Hit a home run."
He made his debut for the Yomiuri Giants at 19 and played 57 games. By 1996, at the age of 22, Matsui was fully developed as a slugger. He hit .314 with 38 home runs that year and won his first Central League Most Valuable Player award. Over the next seven years, he hit .312, slugged .620, averaged 40 homers a season (and remember, the Japanese seasons are 20 games shorter than the Major Leagues) and won two more MVPs. He was an All-Star every season and led the Giants to three Japanese Series championships.
Matsui was known as Godzilla, a nickname that did not begin positively -- it apparently came from his acne as a young man. In time, though, it defined his overwhelming power and presence in Japan. He was not just an extraordinary player, but also impossibly humble. Another great Whiting story: Matsui apparently never received the salary that he deserved, in part because he refused to be pushy. After one of his MVP seasons, the Giants told him that while he deserved more money, they preferred to keep his salary lower so he did not stand above his teammates. Somehow, this does not seem a line of reasoning that most Major League agents would go along with.
"It doesn't bother me," Matsui told the press.
He was entirely without flash, devoted to the team. (So much so that he reportedly refused to go out on any dates until he had fully established himself as a player.) After one youthful outburst, Matsui had told his father that he never again wanted to do anything that could hurt another person.
Matsui's decision to go play in the United States was likely driven by the overwhelming Major League success of in 2001. If he stayed in Japan, people would say Matsui lacked the ambition and courage to challenge himself against the best players in the world. But if he went to MLB, some in Japan would label him disloyal.
Matsui was 29 in his rookie year in 2003, when he played in 163 games, hit 42 doubles and 16 homers and drove in 106 runs. He finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting to the Royals' Angel Berroa. In some ways, despite solid numbers, that year was a significant disappointment, because he had not made the same typer of impact that Ichiro had.
The next year, though, Matsui hit .298/.390/.522 with 31 homers, 109 runs and 108 RBIs while making the AL All-Star team and getting an MVP vote.
Matsui had a solid Major League career, playing 10 years, hitting 175 home runs and making two All-Star teams. He was a World Series hero, hitting an astonishing .615 with three home runs in the Yankees' six-game Fall Classic win over the Phillies in 2009.
But when you put together what he did in Japan and the United States -- he hit .293/.381/.521 with 508 home runs and more than 1,500 runs and RBIs -- you see a real case for Cooperstown. The Baseball Hall of Fame is officially titled "The National Baseball Hall of Fame," so it has not inducted any players like Sadaharu Oh, the Japanese Baseball icon. But there is the thought that as baseball becomes more and more an international game, the Hall of Fame will want to adjust accordingly. It has already dedicated plenty of space in the museum to tell the story of Japanese baseball.
So one day down the road, there might yet come a time in Cooperstown for Matsui.