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Richard Justice

Matsui was an immediate hit with the Yankees

Justice: Matsui's character shined through

Matsui was an immediate hit with the Yankees
Hideki Matsui made an immediate impression on the New York Yankees from the moment he slipped into pinstripes for the first time in the spring of 2003. First, he looked the way a New York Yankee is supposed to look. He was physically imposing, with 210 pounds packed tightly around a 6-foot-2 frame. He had huge hands and an effortless swing, and on that very first day in Tampa, he sprayed line drives to all fields.

He hit a grand slam in his first regular-season game at Yankee Stadium. Along the way, he quickly convinced a bunch of Yankees that he was the real deal. Derek Jeter liked him immediately. So did Roger Clemens and Bernie Williams and plenty of others. If they ever doubted, even for a minute, that his Japanese accomplishments would translate to success in the United States, they soon became convinced otherwise.

Still, that's not the thing they remember about Matsui, who announced his retirement on Thursday after 10 seasons in the Major Leagues, including seven with the Yankees. Matsui, 38, was an accomplished Yankee, averaging 28 doubles and 20 home runs a season. He didn't miss a game his first three seasons and was a two-time All-Star. He was also a World Series Most Valuable Player for hitting .615 in the 2009 Fall Classic.

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Inside the Yankee clubhouse, he left another legacy. That was his personality and his sense of humor and his humility. It's unlikely any Yankees player has ever tried hard to be a good teammate and to fit into the fabric of the clubhouse. As Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement, "Hideki Matsui, in many ways, embodied what this organization stands for."

Upon learning of Matsui's retirement, Jeter released a statement calling him one of his favorite teammates. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman added, "People naturally gravitated towards him, and that's a direct reflection of his character."

Matsui's humor and grace extended off the field, too. In those first years, he was covered by a contingent of Japanese reporters that sometimes numbered more than three dozen. Matsui worked hard to be accommodating to the reporters while also attempting not to be disruptive to his teammates as they went about the business of preparing themselves to play.

He'd been a rock star of sorts in Japan. In the United States, though, he was a rookie trying to prove himself. He understood the difference.

The Yankees surely would tell you they got everything out of his seven seasons. He helped the Bronx Bombers win their 27th championship, but he also introduced the franchise to the millions of Japanese baseball fans.

He made the pinstripes cool in Tokyo, and in doing so, he gave American fans a reminder of good the baseball in Japan is. Matsui said his decision to retire, which came after he hit .147 in 34 games for the Rays last season, was based on the reality that he simply couldn't do things the way he'd done them when he was younger.

Matsui's enduring star power was on display Thursday in Manhattan, when an estimated 60 Japanese reporters showed up for his retirement announcement. He decided to walk away even though he said several Japanese teams had offered him a chance to play.

During his 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, he seemed a sure bet to manage once his playing career ended. If that ends up happening, the Yankees who played with him, coached him and admired him wouldn't be surprised.

He carried himself with the confidence of a great athlete, but as Cashman said, he was a personal magnetism that would make him a natural fit for a leadership position. For now, let's savor his 10 seasons in the United States.

He was a guy who worked hard to be at his best when the stakes were the highest. He was also a guy who understood that good teams are composed largely of players who put the team first and who understand what's really important in the grind of a nine-month season.

Matsui won't be remembered as the greatest Yankee who ever lived. He just was a guy who produced some special moments and was absolutely beloved by the people who knew him best. As legacies go, that's about as good as it gets.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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