By Scott Melesky
Statistics are a way journalists and fans can measure the greatness of athletes in sports, especially baseball. In the major leagues in both Japan and the United States, four prestigious statistical clubs demonstrate a player’s greatness: the 3,000 hit and 300 home run clubs for batters and the 300 win and 3,000 strikeout clubs for pitchers.
In a series of articles, I will write stories on each Japanese player in these prestigious clubs. I want to focus on the distinguished players that played in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and highlight their contributions to the game. I am going to start this series by highlighting the NPB players in the 300 Home Run Club.
Next in my series is former outfielder and designated hitter for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and 2018 Japan Baseball Hall of Fame (Yakyu Dendo) inductee, Hideki Matsui. Matsui played ten years for the Giants in NPB and also played a combined ten years in Major League Baseball for the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Oakland A’s, and Tampa Bay Rays. He had a prestigious career in Major League Baseball. Matsui was a two-time MLB All-Star and helped lead the Yankees to the 2009 World Series title, where he was named Most Valuable Player in the series. When you combined Matsui’s home run totals in both leagues, he has 507 home runs.
With that said, these series of articles are on players’ performances in the NPB. Matsui had a very successful career in Major League Baseball, but this article will focus on his time with the Giants.
Matsui is 35th on the all-time NPB list with 332 home runs. Matsui is the first Japanese Hall of Famer in our NPB 300 Home Run List countdown. He was highly touted as a youth and was a beloved superstar in Japan from his journey from high school to international superstardom in baseball.
Matsui played for the Western Honshu powerhouse Seiryo High School and led them to four straight elite National High School Baseball Tournaments at the famed Koshien Stadium from 1989 to 1992. During his senior year, he gained the nation’s respect when he was intentionally walked five times in a tournament game that Seiryo would lose. Matsui did not show any emotion or frustration at the opposition. He quietly took his base each time and was lauded by the officials and media for it.
Matsui skipped college for the pros, and the Yomiuri Giants drafted him in the first round of the NPB draft. The Giants thought well of Matsui and presented him with the uniform number 55. 55 was a significant number in Giants and NPB history because national hero Sadaharu Oh hit a single-season NPB record of 55 home runs in 1964 (the record was tied by Tuffy Rhodes in 2001 and Alex Cabrera in 2002 and broken by Wladimir Balentien in 2013 when he hit 60 home runs for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows). Though Matsui never reached that number in single-season home runs, he demonstrated his formidable power each year for the Giants. Matsui hit 30 or more home runs seven times. He hit 40 home runs twice and 50 home runs in 2002, in what would be his final season playing baseball in Japan. Matsui led the Central League in home runs and RBIs in 1998, 2000, and 2002.
Matsui batted .300 or better five times in his career, was a nine-time NPB All-Star, and won the Central League MVP in 1996, 2000, and 2002. He was also an eight-time Best Nine Award winner in the Central League (1995-2002) and was a recipient of the Matsutaro Shoriki Award in 2000. The award is named in honor of the owner of the popular newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun who is celebrated as the father of Japanese professional baseball. It is presented to a player or manager who has greatly contributed to the development of professional baseball.
In the postseason, Matsui dominated and added to the Giants’ championship tradition. He led the team to four Japan World Series appearances, in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2002 and won three titles (they lost to Ichiro Suzuki’s Orix BlueWave in 1996). Matsui was named MVP of the Japan Series in 2000. He would become the only baseball player to win MVP honors in both the Japan Series and the MLB World Series.
American baseball fans were first exposed to Matsui’s talents in 1994, when the MLB World Series was canceled due to the players’ strike. WGN, a TV channel out of Chicago, IL, broadcasted the 1994 Japan Series between the Giants and the Seibu Lions. Sports Illustrated covered the series in-depth to U.S. readers. Matsui now stood in the international spotlight. In Game 4, he homered, but the Giants lost 6-5 in 12 innings. Yomiuri would overcome this loss and beat the Lions in six games.
Two years later, the Giants returned to the Japan Series but were defeated by the Orix BlueWave in five games.
Matsui and the Giants would come back with a vengeance in the 2000 Japan Series against the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. It was a special series for Japanese baseball fans, as former Giants’ all-time greats Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima managed against each other. The media deemed it the ON series, in honor of the nickname “O-N Cannon” that the two teammates shared when they played together from 1959 to 1974. Matsui dominated in the series with three home runs enroot to winning the Japan Series MVP honors.
In 2002, Matsui won his final Japan Series title as the Giants swept the Lions in four games.
Matsui would play ten years for the Giants and compiled a career .304 batting average with 332 home runs, 1,390 hits, and 889 RBIs. He played in 1,250 consecutive games, which is the second-longest streak in Japan.
Matsui is an iconic figure in Japanese sports and is also very popular in pop culture. He goes by the nickname “Godzilla” because of his strength and power and made a cameo in the 2002 movie Godzilla against Mechagodzilla. Matsui also made a cameo in the 2006 movie Click and is mentioned in the popular Japanese sports Manga series Major that ran from 1994 to 2010.
After playing ten years in the Major Leagues in the United States, Matsui returned to Japan to officially announce his retirement from baseball on December 27, 2012. The Japanese government and NPB would honor him in an official retirement ceremony on May 5, 2013, at the Tokyo Dome. At the ceremony, Matsui and Shigeo Nagashima were both presented the People’s Honour Award. This is a prestigious commendation presented by the Prime Minister of Japan to recognize people’s accomplishments in sports, entertainment, and other fields. It was created in 1977, and Matsui was the 23rd person to receive the award in Japan. On January 15, 2018, Matsui became the youngest player to be elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 43; he received 91.3% of the vote.