Knocking It Out of the Park

During a professional baseball career that spanned twenty seasons, Hideki Matsui attained superstar status, first in his native Japan and then in Major League Baseball, where he played seven memorable seasons for the New York Yankees. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Godzilla” for his ability to launch rockets from the batter’s box. He also charmed many Bronx Bombers fans with his uniquely humble charisma.

Since his retirement from baseball, Matsui continues to make his home in this area and stay connected to the sport he loves. In 2018, at the age of forty-three, he was the youngest player to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s also worked as a roving instructor/mentor for up-and-coming Yankees.

On September 20, Matsui will help host the second Annual Champion A Champion Golf Classic at the Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich. The tournament will benefit his foundation, Matsui 55 Baseball, as well as the Global Citizens Initiative, a Greenwich-based nonprofit that identifies youth leaders from around the world and mentors them in global services projects while promoting cross-cultural dialogue and understanding.

Participants in the tournament include many notables from the world of professional sports and feature a fireside dinner chat between former Yankees and Mets managers Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine. At press time, legendary sports broadcaster Bob Costas was expected to join as the moderator.

In anticipation of the tournament, Matsui sat down to chat alongside Yumi Kuwana, president and founder of Global Citizens Initiative and his personal friend. Although Matsui speaks English, he prefers to use a translator when speaking to the press. Yumi served as his translator.

Hideki Matsui

GREENWICH MAGAZINE: You retired from the MLB in 2013, and for a time you were working for the Yankees as a roving batting instructor for minor league players. Are you still doing that?
HIDEKI MATSUI: I continued to be an advisor up until the end of last year, but then because of Covid I’ve been taking a break. But it was something I truly enjoyed. I found the work very meaningful. It was the first time, after I retired, that I got really involved in coaching. I was able to personally learn things from the experience, but to see the players grow and develop was what I truly liked most.

GM: Would you like to continue?
HM: I’m thinking about it—assessing the situation holistically and deciding what’s next. I want to be respectful of the Yankees, too. They need to think about it as well and decide if it’s right for the organization.

GM: Why did you settle here and not in Japan?
HM: I can enjoy more privacy here and live with my family in a normal way, where I can continue to have a certain kind of privacy. If I live in Japan, I have to do so with all the media and things that come with being a public figure. Here, I can enjoy my family time. It’s just easier, and I can have quality of life.

GM: Is the Japanese media even more intrusive than the New York press?
HM: It’s not even the media, really. It’s just a different level of fame I have to deal with on a daily basis in Japan, where I’m more recognized and always being asked for autographs and pictures. There, I can’t even walk down the street. Here, it’s different. I think fewer people notice me. Even if they do notice, they don’t bother me as much. It’s just less intrusive, and so I can relax a bit more.

GM: When you played for the Oakland A’s, you raised a lot of money in support of Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief. Have you always used your platform for philanthropy?
HM: It’s just the right and natural thing to do. If you can use your position to help and improve the lives of people, especially when they’re hurting or in trouble or having a hard time, I think you should. By using your platform in this way, I think you can inspire other people to do good, too; and then, ultimately, you can help more people. I think that’s the most important reason to do it and always the goal.

Matsui at youth baseball clinics in Japan

GM: Why focus your personal foundation, Matsui 55, on bringing baseball clinics and equipment to children in marginalized and underserved communities?
HM: Baseball has had such a positive impact throughout my whole life. It’s a great sport and I want to share it and hope more kids will play it. And no matter what your personal circumstances are, you should have access to this sport and have the joy and experience of playing it. I can’t follow up with every single child who participates, but seeing them enjoy the fun of baseball, for even a day, is just really great.

GM: You have become truly bicultural. I’m assuming this is why you support the work GCI is doing to foster young global citizens and thinkers?
HM: I’m not an expert or specialist on this, but I do think the world needs to be more interconnected and we need to work harder to understand each other’s perspectives more. I imagine that the young people who do this most successfully will be the leaders of the future. I think becoming a good listener is key. You don’t always have to agree, but understanding the other person’s perspective is so important to having mutual understanding. The world is just more and more interconnected, and it’s important to have this ability to listen and understand one another.

GM: The MLB is very diverse. How did playing baseball inform your own cross-cultural perspective?
HM: That’s interesting because Japanese baseball is very diverse, too. There were a lot of players who came to Japan to play from other countries; and so, for a long time, I was the person receiving them. Here, I came to play baseball, and suddenly I was the foreigner and being received in a new place. That experience helped me understand, from both perspectives, how difficult that experience can be and also how personally beneficial and rewarding it can be. It really grew my empathy and helped me see things from the perspective of others.

Yumi Kuwana, president and founder of Global Citizens Initiative, with Matsui – Photograph by Eiichiro Kuwana

GM: You’re a father now, and we’re curious about your perspective on youth sports. There seems to be increasing pressure on young athletes, especially in this area, to specialize in sports at earlier and earlier ages. Is that a good or bad thing?
HM: As a kid I focused on judo and baseball and then, just baseball. The Japanese way is to really focus quite narrowly on one thing. I don’t know if that’s the right way—and it may be becoming more the American way, too—but I think the focus should be on nurturing the love of something. The first question a parent should ask about their child and any sport is, “Do they like it?” The next question is, “Are they passionate about it?” And the third thing is, “Is this something they want to really work hard at?” You have to have all those things to be successful at any sport, even with natural talent.

GM: Would you like your children to play baseball?
HM: If they are passionate about it. What I hope is that they have a great passion for something. It doesn’t have to be a sport; it doesn’t have to be baseball. If it’s baseball, that’s great, but it’s up to them.

GM: They would have a good coach.
HM: (Laughs) I’m not sure about that. If they are doing something wrong, something that’s always been easy for me to do, that might not be the best thing.

GM: Since the charity event is coming up, let’s talk golf. How’s your game?
HM: (Pauses) Hmm … You know, baseball is a game where you hit the ball at a 90-degree angle, and sometimes I hit the golf ball like it’s a home run and it’s hard to follow. That can be a good thing, or it may not be such a good thing.

YUMI KUWANA: He is being very humble. I’ve seen him play, and he’s a very good player. He hits the ball like he’s Superman. You know, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s gone. It just goes so far.

HM: (Laughs) I would not say I’m Superman, but it is hard to follow.

matsui55.org; globalci.org

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