“I want to be a world champion with the Yankees.”
In 2003, I left Japan to realize this dream. Eighteen years have passed since then, and I realized recently that the years I have spent living in the United States are about to exceed the years I spent in my hometown of Ishikawa, where I was born and raised.
So, perhaps this is the perfect time to share some memories with the people of New York.
I can remember the exact day that my MLB dream came into existence. It was in the fall of 1999, when I got a chance to watch the Yankees play.
My team, the Yomiuri Giants, had missed the league title, so I had the opportunity to come to the United States to watch the Yankees play the Red Sox in the ALCS.
The Yankees at that time were considered to be in their golden age — so many famous players wearing the pinstripes, the atmosphere of the stadium, and the tension you feel on the skin of your body. I was moved by everything, and my heart was constantly racing as I was watching the game from the stands.
I want to play here. I want to help the Yankees become world champions. These were the thoughts going through my mind during the game.
I was entrusted with batting cleanup for the Yomiuri Giants at the time, and I fully understood the position I was in. I also understood the expectations of the fans. Under those circumstances, I couldn’t simply prioritize my own feelings and happily announce that I was a free agent and was going to the major leagues. On the other hand, being faced with the ultimate situation where I can only choose one or the other, I couldn’t hold back my honest feelings. I didn’t want my dream to stay just a dream.
Even after retiring from professional baseball, I still live in New York, the city I first arrived in with a dream.
Some ask, “Why are you still living in New York?”
To be honest, I don’t have a clear reason. One thing I can say, though, is that this city is a very “comfortable” place for me.
I played for the Yankees for seven years, then had the pleasure of playing for other teams like the Angels, Athletics, and Rays, allowing me to experience living in different places. Anaheim and San Francisco were both wonderful cities. Tampa was the spring training home of the Yankees, so it was a very familiar place and easy to spend time in. The longer I lived in the United States, the more opportunities I had to get to know different cities. But what made New York special to me was always the same no matter where I was living — and it’s still the same. It may be that I have a strong bias toward the city that I first landed in after leaving Japan, but even without that, New York is still a special place for me.
It’s not easy to describe New York’s “comfort” in one word.
I feel, though, that this “comfort” is due not only to the atmosphere of the city, but also to the “perfect sense of distance” created by the people of New York.
“Perfect sense of distance.”
One way I notice this is that in New York, you can walk around the city without being recognized.
When I was in Japan, especially when I was playing ball, I couldn’t walk around quietly in the city. Perhaps I was too sensitive, but I couldn’t help being self-conscious about people looking at me. In that respect, there are many people who don’t know me here in New York. Even if you are walking around the city, you can live quietly without being suddenly approached or asked to take a picture. Even on the rare occasions when the fans would call out to me, they would have kind words such as, “Hideki, thank you for all the good memories!” People in New York respect your privacy, so they don’t come too close.
People here may appear like they don’t care, but when they see others in trouble, I think that there are many people who are more than willing to help.- Hideki Matsui
The same is true when eating at a restaurant. I usually dine in the same area as other customers, and nobody seems to bother. I would think, “Wow, no one seems to be aware of me.” Actually, there was an episode where I realized that they were just respecting my privacy.
That was after winning the World Series in 2009, when I visited the restaurant I always used to go to. It’s a quiet restaurant where no one usually talks to you and you don’t have to turn around. But that day was different. As soon as I entered the restaurant, all the customers stood up and applauded me. While I was surprised at the unusual response, I was very pleased with the memory of thinking, Wow, you really do know me!
Not limited to that restaurant in New York, each person lives with mutual respect for everyone else’s privacy. I often feel such an attitude of respect is one of the reasons why I’m comfortable in New York.
There are other good things about the “perfect sense of distance” that the people of New York have. People here may appear like they don’t care, but when they see others in trouble, I think that there are many people who are more than willing to help. I’ve had a lot of people help me since I started living in New York, but there are no such experiences that I can think of in Japan.
Take the day of Game 2 of the World Series.
Even though I had left early with plenty of time to drive to the game, I was caught in an unexpected traffic jam caused by an accident or something. There was heavy traffic at the Macombs Dam Bridge near Yankee Stadium. I waited for so long, but the cars wouldn’t move at all. At this rate, I would be too late to practice before the game started.
At that moment, a police officer who always worked as security at Yankee Stadium happened to pass by on a police bike and noticed me. He escorted my car after saying, “Oh, Hideki. Are you O.K.? Follow me.”
If he hadn’t noticed me, I would have had to face an important game without any practice. This episode is just one example, but New York is a city where there are many people who warmly reach out to those in need. While it was a “perfect sense of distance” here, it was also “perfect timing.”
That was the case before my move to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012.
At that time, I was in trouble because I hadn’t signed with a team yet and didn't even have a place to practice. It was the people of New York who saved me from such a predicament.
A person I knew from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, who was in charge of rehabilitating the team when I was with the Yankees, offered me a training facility in New York, saying, “If you like, try it out for practice.” I wasn’t feeling down because I hadn’t signed with a team yet, but nothing could have started without a place for practice. I was very thankful for the offer.
For the first time in my life of baseball, which had been so blessed until then, I was an unsigned player with no place to practice. But a New Yorker came to help once again, and I was able to temporarily return to New York to do what I love. Without this experience, I couldn’t imagine how unsigned players would spend their days, and it was definitely the moment when I became more attached to New York.
For me, the first seven years I spent with the Yankees were great. After that, I still often felt the greatness of New York and the Yankees when I was away.
I would like to conclude by telling you what happened in New York that went beyond “comfort,” and left me with a lasting impression.
I have never once cried in all the years of my baseball life. There was only one time I almost cried on the field.
It happened at the championship ring ceremony, which was held before the opening game the year after the Yankees won the world championship for the first time in nine years.
Yankee Stadium was jam-packed with fans before the game, and the ceremony began in a grand fashion.
Championship rings were to be handed out to the famous Yankees who had contributed to a world championship on the same stage where legendary players such as Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford had also been invited. Then, after captain Derek Jeter, the last player on the first base side, came out from the bench and received his ring, an announcement was heard in a loud voice:
"World Series MVP, number 55, Hideki Matsui!!"
Yes, I was attending this ceremony as an Angels player on the third base side.
During the off-season in 2009 after I became a world champion, I signed with the Angels without pursuing any negotiations to stay with the Yankees.
I loved the Yankees and wearing the pinstripes was truly a joy for me. My honest feelings were that I wanted to continue playing as a member of the Yankees.
That was simply it.
I loved the Yankees and wearing the pinstripes was truly a joy for me.- Hideki Matsui
However, it was a different matter whether the Yankees actually needed my services or not. The final decision the team made was that they didn’t consider me a force in the team’s vision for next season.
At that time, there were various feelings about that decision. I was sad and disappointed that I couldn’t play for the Yankees. Ultimately, I thought I had to make the decision to take a new step, accepting the reality that I could not return.
I changed my mind firmly and started the season as a member of the Angels, and the ring ceremony was held under those circumstances.
Before the ceremony began, I decided to take the rationale, thinking, “I’m going to receive the ring as an Angels player. I’m no longer a Yankees player.” There was a game to be played immediately after, so I was waiting for my turn calmly, saying, “It just so happens that I am attending the ceremony as an opponent."
And my name was called last. It was at “that moment” when I jumped out of the bench from the third base side of the field to receive the championship ring.
From the stands filled with Yankees fans, crackling cheers, a huge applause, and standing ovations arose.
At that moment, all the emotions I had suppressed came overflowing at once. I was about to tear up on the field for the first time ever.
In addition, a tremendous surprise awaited shortly after receiving the championship ring from manager Girardi. The Yankees, who lined up neatly between first base and second base, rushed around me all at once. It was like the moment I hit a walk-off home run. Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano … and at the end, Jeter congratulated me and rejoiced in the reunion. A red uniform surrounded by pinstripe uniforms. It was a stylish surprise that my former teammates thought of for their old friend.
The Yankees and New York gave me the greatest gift after playing for them for seven years and becoming a world champion.
Actually, there is more to this story….
When I returned to the Angels bench, my teammates asked, “Show me, show me,” so I showed them the championship ring. Then, for some reason, everyone looked suspicious. It seemed a little tacky and unexpected. It was the first time for me to see a championship ring, and I had no doubt that it was real.
After that, when the starting lineup was introduced and I went out to the field, Girardi came to me.
“This is the real thing.”
I still vividly remember the Angels’ manager, Mike Scioscia, who was watching the exchange up close, laughing out loud.
The championship ring that I had received in the whirlpool of excitement at the ceremony was actually a replica that was distributed to the fans who visited the stadium that day. Yes, Jeter had played a prank and replaced my real one with the fake ring.
When I received it, I was probably too excited. Why didn’t I notice it then? The ring looked so tacky compared to the real thing. Hahahahaha!
I loved this kind of team atmosphere, and I still love the Yankees and the Yankee fans.
Can I tell you about the first memory I have with Jeter, by the way?
It was in 2003 during spring training in Tampa, shortly after I’d crossed the sea from Japan to start my New York adventure. It hadn’t been long since I’d joined the team at spring training camp when I was greeted warmly by Jeter.
Jeter was already a major league superstar at the time. For me, he was a top-notch player who was always on the TV.
After practice one day, he kindly asked me, “If you have nothing to do, why don’t you come over to see Mike Tyson’s fight today at my place?” I told him I would definitely go.
I don’t remember the details, but Posada and other Yankees were there chatting over a light drink and watching boxing together.
I think Jeter was concerned about me being uncomfortable in the new environment and encouraged me to get used to the team quickly. Such kindness is my first memory of him.
My impression of Jeter hasn’t changed from the first encounter to the present. That is, Jeter treats others well and never makes them feel uncomfortable. The more I got to know him, the more solid the impression became.
At the same age, we were playing in similar roles before I came to the U.S. While he was a big name with the Yankees, I had a lead position with the Yomiuri Giants. Perhaps that explained why I had been asked several times, “Do you feel you share similarities with Derek Jeter?” I do not wish to sound conceited that my situation might be similar to his, but I always admired the way he treated people, and I wanted to always be like that.
Also, when I listened to what he was talking about and how he thought, I often felt that there was something that I agreed with, albeit one-sidedly.
Jeter doesn’t have the tense barriers that superstars often have. He always treats everyone with respect.
I think he behaves that way because of the environment in which he was born; it’s his personality. He is always open to others and has a soft disposition. I think that’s one of his greatest attributes.
I always admired the way he treated people, and I wanted to always be like that.- Hideki Matsui
Whenever the game was over, and he was interviewed by the media at the clubhouse, he answered the questions seriously to the last reporter. At first glance, it may seem obvious, but not all players can do that every day. Depending on how they’d played in the game, some Yankees would leave quickly. It was also true that others simply avoided the media altogether. It was never just one or two reporters when it came to Jeter. He was surrounded by many reporters every day and was sincerely responding to the end.
Actually, when I left high school and joined the Yomiuri Giants, I learned that there are fans behind the media and that I should respond properly. Being interviewed is part of my job, and I was expected to answer honestly. In a sense, it’s a matter of course. I will answer properly when asked. If you ask me any question, I will answer it properly, and even if it is a boring question or the same question is repeated, the other person has a job to do, so respecting the people in the media and making time for them is natural for me. That’s why I often agreed with the way Jeter interacted with the media.
And what Jeter finds even better is humor. It made people happy — and I felt that I should try to emulate him.
I think his personality as well as his excellent track record as a player is the reason why he continues to be loved by many people. Jeter is truly a symbol of the Yankees and New York.
I have another unforgettable memory with him.
It was the spring after Jeter retired from professional baseball. As I said earlier, he came to Japan to visit my hometown in Ishikawa Prefecture.
At that time, Derek had just launched The Players’ Tribune, and he must have been very busy as he entered the business world. Nevertheless, he came to Japan!
Jeter wrote this memory in “Dear Japan”: “I traveled with my friend Hideki Matsui in his hometown and we had a wonderful time together,” which will always be a precious memory for my lifetime.
Not only did he take a walk around the city and experience Japanese kimono, he also came to my home and ate local crabs, sashimi and sukiyaki together in my living room.
My parents still remember the excitement of those days and say, “Jeter was here. I still can’t believe it.” Certainly it was unbelievable that Jeter would go all the way to Japan, to my hometown, which requires a longer travel from the city. No matter how much of a superstar he becomes, he is humble. Jeter is a man who excels in the service spirit and humor that pleases people. I think it was an unforgettable memory not only for me and my family, but also for Jeter fans in Japan.
While Jeter is such a friendly person, he was able to lead as captain tremendously. Why is Jeter called Mr. Yankee by so many people? Here is one story when I felt his awesomeness.
It was the opening game of 2003, the debut game of major league baseball for me, which I will never forget. Jeter unfortunately dislocated his left shoulder in the game and was seriously injured. He remained on the disabled list for a month and a half. It is natural for players who get hurt during a season to feel depressed, but for him it happened in the season opener. But the next day, Jeter came to the stadium, went to the bench, and joked with everyone. The purpose was to ease the tension of his teammates who had just started and to liven up the atmosphere of the team. At that time, I remember realizing from the bottom of my heart that this person was Mr. Yankee. He wasn’t the official captain at the time, but I could see early on that he would be a symbol of the team, and that because of people like Jeter, the Yankees would remain a great team. If he weren’t there, the Yankees might have been a completely different team. Of course, there were many talented players, but Jeter was still a particularly prominent one.
Being a superstar, his dedication to the team, his concern for his teammates, how he put the utmost importance for winning, I really respected him for doing it all. Jeter taught me a lot, not only as a player, but also as a human being. I am grateful again for having learned so much and received various opportunities, both privately and at the stadium, since the day he invited me to his home for the first time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way about Jeter.
It’s still true.
In this place called TPT that Jeter created, I speak in my own words about my feelings for him.