By HOWIE RUMBERG
NEW YORK — Free agent slugger Hideki Matsui retired Thursday from professional baseball, saying he is no longer able to perform at the level that made him a star in two countries.
The 2009 World Series MVP with the New York Yankees and a three-time Central League MVP with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants struggled in a brief stint with the Tampa Bay Rays last season and recently made up his mind to call it a career after 20 years — the first 10 in Japan.
Despite choosing to make the announcement in New York because the city was special to him, the nearly hour-long news conference was conducted only in Japanese and was broadcast live to his home country, where it was 7 a.m. Friday. A Japanese reporter translated portions of the event for the four American baseball writers in attendance.
Before he left for New York in 2003, Matsui told his fans in Japan that he would give his life to playing in the major leagues, give whatever he had, the reporter said. “Today is the day he put a period to that.”
In front of more than 15 cameras and dozens of Japanese reporters, many of whom detailed every aspect of his career in the United States, the outfielder/designated hitter gave a 12-minute speech before answering questions for about 40 minutes more, betraying little emotion except for that sly smile he flashed during his playing days.
Nicknamed Godzilla, Matsui was already perhaps the most popular player of his generation in Japan when he signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Yankees.
While Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki appeared to shy away from the attention, Matsui walked right into the spotlight and embraced the scrutiny.
Playing for the Yankees was, “one of the best things that happened to him in his life,” the Japanese reporter quoted Matsui as saying.
No. 55 was a monster for New York, too. Always cool under pressure, Matsui hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium and matched a World Series record with six RBIs in his pinstripe finale seven years later — during the clinching Game 6 of the 2009 Series.
“I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “Despite being shadowed by a large group of reporters, having the pressures of performing for his fans both in New York and Japan and becoming acclimated to the bright lights of New York City, he always remained focused and committed to his job and to those of us he shared the clubhouse with. I have a lot of respect for Hideki.”
In his career with New York, Matsui made two All-Star teams and hit .292 with 140 doubles and 597 RBIs. He played in his first 518 major league games after playing in 1,250 straight games in Japan.
In his first remarks after breaking his wrist and ending that streak in 2006, he apologized for getting hurt. Matsui returned four months later and went 4 for 4.
Matsui was known for being stoic but he also had a sense of humor, and he got a good laugh Thursday, telling the crowd that he doesn’t like to use the word “retirement” because he will play pick-up baseball.
Still, Matsui ruled out competing this year in the World Baseball Classic or joining a team in Japan again.
“He was not confident he’d be able to play at the level he played at 10 years ago,” the reporter said.
In fact, Matsui still has not decided on what to do next.
Matsui hit 21 homers for the Los Angeles Angels in 2010 after New York didn’t offer him a new contract, but his numbers fell off considerably after that. He slumped to .147 (14 for 95) with the Rays in 37 games before being released.
Overall, Matsui batted .282 with 175 homers and 760 RBIs for the Yankees, Angels, Oakland Athletics and Rays. In Japan he had a .304 career average with 332 homers and 889 RBIs in 1,268 games.
“Hideki Matsui, in many ways, embodied what this organization stands for. He was dedicated to his craft, embraced his responsibilities to his team and fans, and elevated his play when he was needed the most,” Yankees general managing partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “He did all these things with a humility that was distinctly his own, which is why he was such a big part of our success and why he will always be a cherished member of the Yankees family.”
Matsui said he first started thinking about the Yankees when he became a professional and his manager with the Giants told him to aspire to be a player like former New York center fielder Joe DiMaggio.
Then in 1999 — three years from free agency — Matsui went to Yankee Stadium to watch a game and was “astonished” at the level of play. He thought to himself that he would “like to become a player that would be capable of playing at Yankee Stadium,” the reporter translated.
Matsui arrived in New York after a season in which he hit 50 homers for the most well-known team in Japan, and fit right in.
“Hideki came to the Yankees as a superstar and immediately became a team favorite. Not only for his talent but for the unselfishness he brought to the game every day,” said MLB executive vice president for baseball operations Joe Torre, who was Matsui’s manager for his first five seasons in New York. “Hideki Matsui is a winner and I was proud to be his manager.”