Matsui feted in Tokyo retirement ceremony

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Nagashima, Matsui receive honor award
Nagashima, Matsui honored — Former baseball players Hideki Matsui (L) and Shigeo Nagashima (R) hold a golden baseball bat they received from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a ceremony to present them with the People’s Honor Award at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on May 5. pool photo/Kyodo News

TOKYO — Hideki Matsui brought down the curtain on his playing career on May 5 in an elaborate ceremony at his former home park, Tokyo Dome, as he and his first pro skipper, Hall of Famer Shigeo Nagashima, each received the People’s Honor Award from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“It’s been a long time,” Matsui said as he began his speech before a packed house on a holiday afternoon. “After I was signed by the Giants in 1992, Mr. Nagashima said I should wear No. 55 as I aspire to match the single-season home record of (Hall of Famer Sadaharu) Oh.

“I always felt that someday I would be back. It’s regrettable that I am not able to return and play. I don’t know in what form it will happen, but in my dreams I see myself with the Giants again.”

Nagashima, a household name as the star third baseman during the Giants’ golden age, was returning as the team’s manager in 1993, 13 years after the team had fired him from the post. Nagashima took Matsui, a third baseman in high school, under his wing and the two developed a close bond.

“He (Nagashima) told me he would leave the cleanup spot in my hands, and with that sense of responsibility, every single day, we would work out,” Matsui said. “He taught me the things I would need to know to become the Giants’ cleanup hitter. That allowed me to play 10 years in Japan and it enabled me to play 10 years in the major leagues.”

“I’ll never forget the warm support of the fans.”

After greeting the fans, he and Nagashima circled the field in a car and Abe presented them with the People’s Honor Award. Abe praised both Nagashima and Matsui for giving bright dreams to the people of Japan.

The pair was greeted by two previous honorees, Oh, who hit more home runs in Japan than Hank Aaron did in the major leagues, and Sachio Kinugasa, who played more consecutive games than long-time major league record holder Lou Gehrig.

Matsui was humble in receiving his honor.

“I never set a home run record like Mr. Oh, or set a consecutive-games-played record like Mr. Kinugasa, or played the game the way Mr. Nagashima did,” Matsui said. “But I played for excellent teams, with excellent teammates, for excellent managers in front of excellent fans.”

“I did work hard to lift up, even a little bit, the game of baseball that is so beloved of the people of Japan.”

Matsui, wearing his Giants uniform, threw out the first pitch prior to the Yomiuri Giants’ game against the Hiroshima Carp, with Nagashima standing in the batter’s box, current Giants manager Tatsunori Hara catching and Prime Minister Abe standing in as umpire.

Nagashima, his right-hand paralyzed by a stroke, swung at a high breaking ball that Abe dutifully called a strike.

“The emotion almost knocked me over,” Nagashima said afterward when the two attended a press conference. “But if it had been a good pitch, I would have hit it.”

Matsui apologized for throwing something unhittable, and added that he was concerned his former mentor would do just that.

“He schooled me in hitting pitches up and in,” Matsui said. “When I saw where it was going, I thought he’d connect.”

The 38-year-old Matsui, the first Japanese power hitter to make a successful transition to the major leagues, announced in December that he would call an end to his 20-year career. A career .304 hitter with 332 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants, Matsui completed his time in Japan in 2002, when he was the Central League’s MVP and signed with the New York Yankees as a free agent.

Matsui played seven seasons for the Yankees, and was the MVP of the 2009 World Series, before finishing out his career with a season each for the Los Angeles Angels, the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, for whom he played in just 34 games in 2012. He was a career .282 hitter in the big leagues with 175 home runs.

His father, Masao, was moved by the sight of his son in a Giants uniform once more.

“I felt he should just get into the batter’s box like that in uniform and stay there,” the elder Matsui said. “He must be very content at this moment. It’s something he never expected.”

Nagashima was the manager of Japan’s national team in March 2004, when he suffered a stroke and was unable to manage the team at the Athens Olympics. His brief acceptance speech was his first in public since his stroke. “Thank you so much for this,” he said. “It is a great honor to be here with Mr. Matsui.”

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