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Arn Tellem

Arn Tellem

Posted: November 11, 2009 01:20 PM

Hideki Matsui: An Ageless Talent

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There's a restaurant in Manhattan's garment district that's practically a gustatory shrine to one of my baseball clients, Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees. The walls of Go! Go! Curry are
festooned with Matsui autographs, caricatures, photographs and newspaper headlines trumpeting his last name, 松井. Matsui is held in totemic esteem at this Japanese curry house, so much so that the joint's very name derives from his jersey number. "Go" is five in Japanese and 55 is what Matsui wears on his pinstriped back. The restaurant even offers 55-cent discount coupons on days after he hits a home run. For those of you without a scorecard, Godzilla hit 28 homers during the regular season, and four more in the post-season.

Despite not starting a single game at Citizens Bank Park, a National League stadium at which the designated hitter is not allowed, Matsui slammed three World Series homers and a record-tying eight RBIs. In the second inning of Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, his two-run shot off Philadelphia's Pedro Martinez put the Yanks ahead for good. The ball clanged off an advertisement on the facing of the second deck in right field -- appropriately, a sign for Komatsu, a Japanese company that makes mining and construction equipment.

No hitter had ever done more damage in the Fall Classic in such a limited role. Matsui posted the third-highest average for a player with at least 10 at-bats in the Series, and the second-highest slugging percentage to Lou Gehrig. After Godzilla's thunderous footfalls helped level Philly, hundreds of Yankees fans converged on Go! Go! Curry to pay tribute to the first Japanese-born Series MVP. The Neagari native who became everybody's all-American accomplished all this in New York, the melting pot where immigrants come to pursue a better life. By embracing Matsui, New Yorkers have once again shown that though ball clubs are named for cities and states, they transcend geography. Teams may not be where we find our heroes today, but, as Matsui has demonstrated, it's where we find heroic situations we can all dream of, argue about or simply watch together in amazement. That's the game's unifying force.

Matsui filed for free-agency on Monday, and sportswriters have speculated that he doesn't figure into the Yanks' future plans. A 35-year-old DH, they argue, doesn't make sense for such a veteran team.

As his agent, I take a different view. The ageless Matsui has shown not just that he can still hit, but that he can hit with consistency and aplomb. During the regular season, he ranked second among DHs in homers, and third in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and walks. No left-handed hitter homered more off southpaws. Matsui combines the late-inning heroics of Yankees great Tommy (Old Reliable) Henrich and the superb professionalism of Paul O'Neill. He's a complete player who always has taken pride in contributing to all facets of the game.

Matsui's immense popularity in Japan gives the Yanks strong financial incentive to re-sign him. He helps bring in millions of dollars annually in marketing and sponsorship revenue. In the seven years since he joined the Bronx Bombers, Matsui has played a pivotal role in establishing the Yankees as a global brand. Six major Japanese companies -- including Toyota, Sony and the Daily Yomiuri newspaper -- have signed on as advertisers, each reportedly adding $1 million or so a year to team coffers. Most of these firms have placed their billboards in right field, often the final resting ground of Godzilla's monstrous clouts, to target the audience of NHK, the Japanese radio and television network. Currently, NHK airs 120 Yankee games a season.

It's not a stretch to say Matsui is as responsible for Japanese interest in the Yankees as Yao Ming is for the NBA in China. Matsui has yet another virtue that goes beyond mere statistics. In an age when athletes mock our reverence daily, he's exemplary in every aspect of his life. In January of 2003, his very first request upon landing in New York was to be taken to the Twin Towers memorial to pay his respects. He did this without publicity or fanfare. He did it because, he said, it was "the right thing to do." After the tsunami hit Indonesia at the end of 2005, Matsui, out his own sense of decency, donated $500,000 to UNICEF. He's one of those rare superstars who recognize the unique role his astonishing talent has given him and the good he can do for others.

Matsui loves New York. He says the last seven years in the Bronx will always have "a special place" in his heart. Fans of Japanese curry take note: Wherever Godzilla winds up, he'll be spawning 55-cent coupons for years to come.