Hideki Matsui 'humbled and honored' to get to say goodbye in pinstripes

07/28/2013 3:22 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Hideki Matsui tips his cap to the fans at Yankee Stadium during his retirement ceremony on Sunday.(AP)
NEW YORK -- "You're going to have a hard time finding a player in our clubhouse who was more well-liked than Hideki Matsui over the years."

Those words, spoken by Joe Girardi on Sunday morning, perfectly sum up just why the Yankees chose to sign "Godzilla" to a one-day contract and allow him to retire in pinstripes.

Matsui, who announced his intention to retire over the winter, spent seven of his 10 Major League seasons in the Bronx, becoming a huge favorite of both fans and players along the way and cementing his legacy with an MVP performance in the 2009 World Series.

On Sunday, he returned to the scene of that glory one last time, signing both his one-day deal and his official retirement papers to close the American chapter of his baseball life.

"I'd like to thank the New York Yankees organization from the bottom of my heart for giving me this opportunity," an emotional Matsui said through his long-time translator, Roger. "I always aspired to be a member of the New York Yankees, and to put on the pinstripes every day for seven years was an absolute joy.

"I officially announced my retirement last year, but to be able to come back and retire as a Yankee -- I never imagined I'd have this opportunity, but I'm so humbled and honored."

Flanked by his parents, Masao and Saeko Matsui, and his brother Tashiki, Matsui signed three contracts on Sunday morning: one for the player, one for the club, and one for the Yankees Museum. General manager Brian Cashman and the woman most instrumental in his arrival, Yankees senior vice president and assistant general manager Jean Afterman, were also by his side.

"My life in baseball began in 1994 when I went to a game and saw Hideki Matsui play, and it was a tremendous honor for everyone here to sign him to a contract in the United States," Afterman said. "And it's an honor to sign him once again today. It will be a sad moment for all of us when he signs his retirement papers, but I know that in whatever he goes on to do, Mr. Matsui will be tremendous."

Roughly 90 minutes after officially re-joining the Yankees, Matsui got a standing ovation from the crowd as he sat down at a desk behind home plate to officially sign those retirement papers. He got another ovation shortly after when Derek Jeter came out to present him with a framed and matted No. 55 jersey from his final season in pinstripes.

To cap it off, Matsui threw out the ceremonial first pitch -- a strike, of course -- but he was once again meeting with the media when the Bleacher Creatures added his name onto the end of the roll call one last time.

"I think this moment will be a moment I never forget," Matsui said. "To be able to retire as a member of the team I aspired to and looked up to, I think there's nothing more fulfilling than that."

And perhaps the fans felt the same way, as even on the day Derek Jeter returned to the lineup again, the abundance of Matsui shirts and jerseys in the crowd and the bobblehead collectibles the team gave away made it clear that Sunday was all about Godzilla from the get-go.

"It's a pleasure to be here to honor such a wonderful human being. This day is a proud one for us, and Hideki represents everything the Yankees aspire to be, and that's a credit to his family," Cashman said. "I remember when we signed him, I remember thanking the people of Japan for sharing such a treasure with us, and it was truly -- and will always be -- a treasure."

Cashman was wearing the Yankees' 2009 World Series ring in Matsui's honor. After speaking to both Matsui's professionalism and how hard the Yankees' star played on the field, the GM shared a story that illustrated perfectly just how Godzilla came to be beloved by everyone he met.

"I remember introducing my daughter Grace to Hideki, and this was in Spring Training," Cashman recalled, "and he took a knee and went right down to her level and looked her in the eye as he talked to her. That's something that again is an example of who he is as a person and as a professional both on and off the field and how he interacted with everyone. We're very thankful that he was here as a Yankee."

"He has a sense of humor, and he probably understands a lot more than he's capable of talking, but players learn to communicate in different ways because we have to do it on the field," Girardi added. "His smiles, and all the things that he would do, you're able to communicate. For me it's great to see him because of what he's meant to this organization and what kind of person he was."

And even though Jeter said it was a "great coincidence" that he returned to the lineup on the day of Matsui's return and retirement, he was glad he got to be around to help send off someone he called one of his favorite teammates ever.

"I'm happy I'm here. I've always said how much I appreciate Matsui as a teammate," Jeter said. "He came here and he was supposed to be 'Godzilla' who hits home runs, but he was a good situational hitter, too. Matsui moved runners when he had to move them, he got big hits, he drove guys in and he wanted to play every day."

And perhaps the biggest connection the two made came because Godzilla is, in a way, just like the Captain.

"He never made excuses. You never heard him talk about any injuries. He just went out and played," Jeter said of Matsui, who he jokingly referred to as an "ojiichan," or "old man" in Japanese, despite himself being just 14 days younger than Matsui. "I enjoyed getting to know him throughout the years. He's always been one of my favorite teammates, and he always will be."

Fitting, then, that one last time on Sunday, Nos. 2 and 55 shared the spotlight at Yankee Stadium, with both saying hello once again and hopefully only one saying goodbye.

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