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They think Hideki Matsui is an angel

A standing O is forecast for the Japanese slugger at Yankee Stadium. Although he's with L.A. now, New York fans are expected to salute the seven-year Yankee as he gets his World Series ring Tuesday.

April 12, 2010|By Mike DiGiovanna

Reporting from New York — It is with a straight face that Hideki Matsui, when asked how he thinks fans will react when he is introduced as a member of the Angels before Tuesday's game in Yankee Stadium, says, through an interpreter, "Honestly, I don't know."

Seriously?

The guy hit .615 (eight for 13) with three home runs and eight runs batted in for the Yankees in the World Series last fall, including six RBIs in the Game 6 clincher to win series most-valuable-player honors, and he doesn't know how New Yorkers will respond?

He was one of baseball's best clutch hitters during a seven-year Yankees career that included four 100-plus RBI seasons, he thrived under the intense media scrutiny of the New York press and the legions of Japanese reporters following him, and he doesn't know how Yankees fans will react?

Just about everything Matsui says, even his humorous lines, he delivers with a straight face, so it's hard to tell whether he's being honest or just being humble, which is definitely his style.

But you can bet the uchi — that's the Japanese word for house — that Matsui, the Angels' new designated hitter, will receive a thunderous ovation when Yankees Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford present him with a World Series ring during a pregame ceremony and another ovation when lineups are announced.

"The career he had, the way he handled himself with the media — he was so consistent all those years —and to win a World Series. … Yankees fans won't forget," said Tino Martinez, the former Yankees first baseman who is a part-time television broadcaster for the team. "It's going to be exciting for him all day long."

Martinez, who helped the Yankees win four World Series titles from 1996 to 2000, knows a thing or two about Yankee Stadium homecomings.

After Martinez signed with St. Louis in 2002, the Cardinals had an interleague series in Yankee Stadium on June 13-15, 2003.

New Yorkers gave Martinez a standing ovation before each of his four plate appearances in the first game. Martinez hit two home runs in the second game, and as he rounded the bases, fans chanted, "Tino! Tino!"

Martinez expected a warm reception, "but the way they reacted caught me totally off-guard," he said. "It was incredible for a guy playing for an opposing team, a moment I'll never forget."

Matsui was a Yankees rookie that year, and when asked to recall any former Yankees who had memorable New York homecomings, Martinez immediately came to mind.

"It was incredible," said Matsui, who, with a .370 average, two home runs and five runs batted in, has been one of the few bright spots in the Angels' dismal 2-5 start. "He got the biggest ovation that day, bigger than any member of the Yankees."

Matsui may not occupy as big a space in the hearts of Yankees fans as Martinez, but "I'm sure Matsui will get the same thing," Martinez said. "He was a true professional. He did great things for the team."

This will be the first time the 35-year-old Matsui, who played 10 years with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan and seven with the Yankees, will play against a former team, "which is precisely why I'm not sure how I'm going to feel," he said.

"But once the game starts, there is no doubt I will be focused on my play and trying to win."

The pregame ceremony, in which the Yankees — and Matsui — will receive World Series rings in front of an Angels club they beat in the American League championship series, could cause more internal conflict.

"Last year, the Weaver brothers [Jered and Jeff] played against each other, and their mom was caught in between, so she wore a split jersey, with the Angels on one side and the Dodgers on the other," Matsui said. "So maybe I can ask her to make me a T-shirt just for the ring ceremony, with Angels and Yankees on it."

Torii Hunter would advise Matsui to brace himself emotionally. The Angels center fielder spent his first 15 years of professional baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization, and after signing with the Angels, he was surprised at how difficult his first visit to Minnesota was in 2008.

"It was hard — I grew up in that organization and had never been on the opposite side," Hunter said. "I can only imagine how Hideki will feel, because he got here from Japan in 2003, and the Yankees are the only organization he's played for.

"I'm pretty sure it will be emotional. It will be a rough day for him, because all the media, his friends, the fans, the vendors he knows will want to talk to him. They still love him there."

New York fans love professional athletes who don't succumb to the pressure of playing in the city, and Matsui did not disappoint.

"There is no place bigger than New York, and it takes a special person to play there because there are expectations that are sometimes unrealistic," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said.

"Hideki is one of the few players who met every expectation through an incredible amount of pressure playing on the biggest stage in our league."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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