Matsui mashes his way to MVP award

NEW YORK -- Hideki Matsui left his native Japan for an exciting new adventure in early 2003. He wanted to play Major League Baseball, but more important, he wanted to be a New York Yankee and wear the uniform of his professional icon, Babe Ruth.

The experiment worked out wonderfully for all involved. The Yankees paid Matsui the handsome sum of $73 million in two contracts covering six years, and Matsui returned the favor by giving the team professionalism, a reliable left-handed stick and four seasons with 100 or more RBIs.

And what might have been the mother of all farewells.

The Yankees' 2009 World Series championship was a team effort, but Matsui owned the clincher. He homered, doubled, singled and drove in six runs in New York's 7-3 victory Wednesday to tie the single-game World Series RBI record set by the Yankees' Bobby Richardson in Game 3 of the 1960 World Series.

As right fielder Nick Swisher observed during the postgame celebration, "They're partying in Tokyo tonight.''

Despite starting only three of six games against the Phillies, Matsui won a shiny new trophy as World Series Most Valuable Player.

But Matsui and Yankees fans are now left to wonder: Was the trophy just a parting gift?

Matsui, 35, will be a free agent this winter. Although he remains a productive offensive player, the Yankees appear to be heading in a different direction. They want to get younger and more athletic, and they might choose to take a more flexible approach to the designated hitter spot and divvy up the at-bats among Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada and the boys.

So the conventional wisdom is that Matsui is on borrowed time in New York -- unless the Mets have a momentary lapse of sanity and decide they want a creaky-kneed DH playing left field in 2010.

Regardless of what happens, this debate won't take long to percolate. Matsui, who has two bad knees, celebrated the final out of Game 6 by hopping around the infield with his teammates with cartilage-threatening fervor. Then he climbed on a podium to accept his Series MVP trophy, and quickly fielded a question about free agency and his future.

"I hope it works out,'' Matsui said through a translator. "I love New York, I love the fans and I love the Yankees.''

A half-hour later, during a postgame press conference, Matsui shrugged when asked if he expects to be wearing a Yankees uniform in 2010.

"I have no idea right now,'' he said.

General manager Brian Cashman knows the drill. Before the Yankee Stadium maintenance people begin wet-vacuuming the clubhouse carpets, he'll be grilled about the team's plans for Matsui, Andy Pettitte and Johnny Damon, the Yankees' three big free agents.

"Now is not the time to deal with that,'' Cashman said. "We're going to celebrate. And then the business side of the game will kick in rather soon when the agents get involved, and we'll look at the players' and the club's interests and find out if all of them match.''

If Wednesday's onslaught was, indeed, Matsui's valedictory, it brought a fitting conclusion to a remarkable story. When Matsui left the Yomiuri Giants for New York, he embraced an enormous challenge and put his professional reputation on the line. He was a three-time Japanese Central League MVP and a nine-time All-Star, and came with the moniker "Godzilla.'' Expectations were high in the U.S. and off the charts in his homeland.

"He was such a tremendous player in Japan. He was a king over there,'' said Yankees assistant GM Jean Afterman, who did much of the legwork to bring Matsui from Japan to the U.S. "But he knew immediately that he would have to work hard to achieve here what he achieved in Japan. He set his mind to it from the moment he got here.''

Matsui announced his presence with authority in April 2003, when he hit a grand slam off Minnesota's Joe Mays in his first home game as a Yankee. Amid the obligatory adjustments -- in everything from food to travel to opposing pitchers' repertoires -- he invariably came to play. Matsui appeared in 1,250 consecutive games for Yomiuri and 518 straight upon joining the Yankees before suffering a broken wrist in 2006. He was so upset about the injury, and so concerned about letting down his teammates, that he issued a public apology.

In contrast to Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who has a reputation for aloofness, Matsui is just one of the guys. He is always candid and accessible with the media, and made a ritual of taking the Yankees' beat writers to dinner each spring.

"He's a phenomenal player, but more important, he's a phenomenal person,'' said Yankees president Randy Levine. "He has tremendous character and leadership, and his teammates love him.''

When the Yankees are cashing their World Series checks and opening the little boxes with their championship rings next spring, they'll love him just a little bit more.

Matsui looked comfortable against Pedro Martinez from the moment he began rearranging the batter's box dirt with his toe in Game 6. In his first at-bat, after A-Rod walked in the second inning, he pulled a long foul ball to right field, then ripped another pitch just foul before working the count full. Martinez opted for the fastball, and Matsui lifted his right leg, took a rip and drove the ball into the second deck to put the Yankees up 2-0.

A two-run single and two-run double later, he'd tied Richardson's single-game RBI record. And his eight RBIs against Philadelphia were the most by a Yankee in the World Series since Reggie Jackson knocked in eight in 1977 and 1978.

Just imagine what Matsui might have achieved if he had started more than three games in the World Series. He won the MVP award even though he was limited to pinch-hitting duties in Philadelphia and logged a mere 13 at-bats in the series. Matsui compensated by hitting .615, slugging 1.385 and piling up 18 total bases.

"He's so fundamentally sound in everything he does,'' Nick Swisher said. "And I tell you what -- he busts his tail. He's come up clutch in so many situations for us this year; he deserves that MVP trophy.''

Matsui is ingrained in franchise lore as a postseason hero and a "true Yankee,'' but now he's in the same boat as all those talk-show callers, bloggers and die-hard fans. All he can do is sit back and wait for the final verdict on his future.

The Yankees profess to love him. But do they love him enough to re-sign him?

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.