(Ishikawa Prefecture, 1974- )
They call him Godzilla. And with good reason. Even when he was just starting to create his personal legend as a high school ball player, Matsui was 186cm tall and weighed in at 90kg. He is one of the most prodigious long-ball hitters Japan has ever produced and has worked hard to become a good outfielder and base runner. His nickname belies his quiet and modest nature, which has helped make him into Japan's most popular player.
The legend began back in 1992. Since his first of four appearances for Seiryo High School at the National High School Baseball Championships (Koshien), Matsui had developed a fearsome reputation, and had a record of 60 home runs. In a second round game, the pitchers of Meitoku High were so scared of him that they deliberately walked him five times and won the game. This was regarded as the very antithesis of what high school baseball was supposed to be all about.
The next year, despite the fact that he wanted to play for the Hanshin Tigers, the 18-year old Matsui was chosen as the No.1 draft pick by "Japan's Team" the Yomiuri Giants. He started slowly enough but in his fourth season he began putting up some impressive numbers and won his first league MVP award. He won the RBI and home run titles three times each (1998, 2000 and 2002), the batting title once (2001) and CL MVP twice (1996, 2000).
Over his career, he has developed a reputation as a consistent and tough player. He began a consecutive game streak in 1994 that became the longest among active players and second only to that of the Japanese "Iron Man" Kinugasa Sachiyo (2,215). He made the Yomiuri "No.4 batter" position his own and also worked hard to become a reliable right fielder and strong, if not the fastest, base runner. These qualities and his surprisingly demure and modest nature combined to make him a fan favorite - and one of Japan's most eligible bachelors, to boot. Of course, playing for the country's most popular and richest team didn't hurt.
But it was this very popularity and Matsui's own loyal nature that made his decision on whether to follow other Japanese stars across the Pacific more difficult. Yomiuri tried to tie their star down with a five-year ¥6-billion contract in 2000 but Matsui would only sign a one-year deal. He said he would decide about whether to use his eligibility to become a free agent at the end of his ninth season in 2002.
The Giants won the Japan Series - for the 20th time - and Matsui came agonizingly close to winning Japan's first Triple Crown since 1986. The increased media attention only served to bring even more focus on Godzilla's heart-breaking choice. He finally announced his free agency and his intention to head to the Majors, but not which team he was aiming for.
The Giants had recently formed a close relationship with the New York Yankees, who made no secret of their interest in acquiring Matsui. Owner George Steinbrenner, who traditionally refused to allow his players to take part in All Star tours, let two of his stars go to Japan, no doubt hoping to influence Matsui. There were many rumors going around at the time, such as that Yomiuri might agree to have their star leave for a few seasons, on the understanding that he return to play his final few years 'where he belongs'. On the other hand, they were also said to have tempted him to stay with a $33 million, 4-year deal.
In the end, he decided to go for the challenge. At $21 million for a 3-year contract, he didn't come cheap but if anyone could afford him, it was the Yankees. "The Yankees (are) the ballclub that would most challenge me," he said. "That's where I wanted to show my abilities." He kept his trademark No. 55, which seemed to bring him luck - he hit an RBI in his first game and a grand slam in his first home outing. He maintained a fairly steady pace throughout his first season, though his home run tally was one of the lowest since turning pro. The season ended with Matsui turning in a fine performance in the World Series, but failing to lift the Yankees past the Florida Marlins, who won in seven games.
Over the following seasons, Matsui established himself as an indispensable part of the Yankees team. He put up solid batting numbers every year and was a reliable outfielder. He put together a playing streak of 518 games to add to the 1,250 he had for the Giants. But on May 11, 2006 he fractured his left wrist, an injury that put him out for the rest of the season. After a summer of rehabilitation, he started back in the minor leagues in September 2006. He has since returned to the regular lineup and even beat out Derek Jeter in the marriage stakes. The teammates had a bet as to who would get married first, and Matsui clinched it with an announcement in March 2008 that he had tied the knot. Having been linked with actress Sakai Miki a few years earlier, he got married to a "civilian" who he described as eight years younger and an employee of "a highly respected company".