Hideki Matsui has not been under contract for the Yankees since Game 6 of the World Series on Nov. 4, 2009 when he set a record with six RBIs, capping a series that saw him hit .615.
On Sunday, he returned to the Yankees in a ceremonial matter as he signed a minor-league contract that allowed him to retire as a member of the team.
With his parents and brother in a packed interview room, Matsui spoke for about 15 minutes about his seven years with the team and called the day he officially signed with the Yankees the greatest moment in his life and baseball career.
“I’ve always aspired to be a member of the New York Yankees,” Matsui said through an interpreter. “To be able to do that for seven years every day was an absolute joy.”
“It’s a pleasure to be here to talk such a wonderful human being,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “Hideki represents everything the Yankees aspire to be and that’s a credit to his family and his country.”
The Yankees originally scheduled Sunday’s game to be Hideki Matsui Bobblehead Day for the first 18,000 fans. They later decided to have the formal tribute to Matsui, a player among the most respected to have played for the Yankees in the last decade.
“Everybody remembers how clutch he was,” Cashman said. “I’m wearing a ring, this particular ring, the 2009 ring, thanks to Hideki Matsui’s efforts. That was the whole purpose, one of the reasons that we gravitated to him because we thought that he could take us to that next level and not surprising, like he did in Japan, he did that for us as well.
It was also reflected in the long lines of people waiting outside the stadium to get in. Many wore Matsui T-shirts and jerseys and one fan even carried a life-size cut-out of Matsui.
During the ceremony, a video tribute on the center field video board set to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” played with Matsui’s most memorable moments, including his six RBIs in the series clincher and his grand slam against Minnesota in his first home game.
Matsui entered on a golf cart via the center-field fence and was driven down the first-base line. After signing the papers while Cashman and assistant general manager Jean Afterman watched, he was presented with a matted and framed 2009 jersey presented to him by Derek Jeter, who earlier in the day said that Matsui was one of favorite teammates.
“He came here and was supposed to be this Godzilla that hits home runs, but he was a situational hitter. Matsui moved runners when he had to move them, he got big hits, he drove guys in, he wanted to play every day. The biggest thing — he never made excuses. Never heard him talk about any injuries, which I appreciate. He would play or he didn’t play,” Jeter said. “I enjoyed getting to know him throughout the years. He’s always been one of my favorite teammates and always will be.”
“Not only was he a middle of the order hitter that had great production, he was a staple in the clubhouse,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He was adored by his teammates, a leader, [especially when] you think about what he went through to play every day with his knees. He was tough, and go back to Game 6 [of the 2009 World Series] and how important that game was to us. You’re going to have a hard time finding a player that was more liked in our clubhouse than Hideki Matsui over the years.”
The ceremony concluded with Matsui throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. It also happened to coincide with his last major-league manager in the opposing dugout.
“Truly it’s great that he’s retiring as a Yankee,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “And I feel we are very fortunate that we were able to cross his path for a bit.”
Rodriguez turns 38
Alex Rodriguez turned 38 Saturday and spent his birthday far from the Yankees in Tampa Bay taking ground balls and running in his attempt to return from a right quadriceps injury that delayed his season debut.
Now it seems that might never come, at least according to a report in Sunday’s editon of the New York Post that said his suspension for being involved with Biogenesis could happen this week. The report indicated the ban would cover the rest of this season and all of next season.
Rodriguez had the day off from working out Sunday, three days after the latest “misunderstanding” between him and the Yankees. The last dramatic event occurred Thursday afternoon when Cashman held a conference to explain the rehab plan while a lawyer from Rodriguez’s side was participating.
Rodriguez followed up by calling into WFAN’s Mike Francesa late Thursday afternoon to say that he accepts the plan, though he wants to play.
As it stands now, the Yankees plan for Rodriguez to appear in a simulated game or a minor league rehab game on Thursday.
Soriano joins Yankees, gets first hits
Before Friday, Alfonso Soriano had not been on the Yankees since 2003 when the team hit 230 home runs, good for third in the AL.
The version of the Yankees that Soriano took a red-eye flight from Arizona to join will not come close to that. The Yankees entered Sunday on pace for 137 home runs and without a home run from a right-handed hitter since June 25.
Soriano helped increase that pace a little bit with a two-run home run on Sunday. It was his first regular season home run as a Yankee since Sept. 28, 2003 in a game that meant so little for the Yankees that Drew Henson scored on it.
Soriano said after his four-hit game that he had not had much sleep, which is understandable since he took a late-night flight from Arizona after details of the trade were being worked on Thursday.
The walkoff on Sunday was Soriano’s 13th career game-ending hit and fourth as a Yankee. His last one came June 18, 2003 against Tampa Bay.
“I said thank God because I didn’t want to go out there and play extra innings,” Jeter said. “I was tired but I was happy for Sori. I’ve never left here and came back but I’m happy for him. I had a lot of great memories with Sori and it was almost like it was old times.”
Besides getting the hit on Jeter’s big day, Soriano’s hit also made Mariano Rivera the winning pitcher which seemed fitting on a day that began with Matsui being celebrated.
“When I see Mariano pitching and Jeter hitting it is like old times in the present because we played together for three years and now after 10 years we come back and we are still playing together,” Soriano said.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.