As a pitcher, Hideki Matsui is no Masahiro Tanaka, which is fine by him. Making his debut on the mound was just a minor sidelight to a major event for Matsui: his first Yankees Old-Timers' Day game.
"I guess this was a little bit earlier than planned but I'm happy to be here," said the former outfielder who turned 40 last week and brought the crowd to its feet Sunday. In the somewhat whimsical game, he had a hit, scored a run, popped out in the face of a severe shift (all four infielders were on the right side of second base) and allowed two hits (the first was to Reggie Jackson) as a pitcher.
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Of course, he learned what former Yankees have known since the first Old-Timers' Day in 1947, that the alumni scrimmage isn't nearly as important as the introductions and the stories. So he got to recall his big hit in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, his grand slam in his first Yankee Stadium game and his performance in the 2009 World Series.
Plus, he got to share the day with former teammate Johnny Damon, who also was making his Old-Timers' Day debut, and his former manager Joe Torre, making his first appearance in the event as a Hall of Famer. "He helped me in so many ways. Maybe I wouldn't be where I am without him," Matsui said, through his old familiar interpreter.
In the annual blending of eras, Matsui was on the stage before his countryman Tanaka pitched in the Yankees game against the Orioles. "I think it's just a coincidence, but it's nice to be able to watch him live," Matsui said, noting he never had seen Tanaka pitch in person before. "He's been amazing, since the start of the season. The numbers really tell the story."
But Old-Timers' Day is more about verbal stories than numbers. Torre, for instance, recalled how he had to tell Matsui "Just keep doing what you're doing" when the power hitter from Japan was pressing in his first season as a Yankee.
Dr. Bobby Brown, 89, remembers seeing that inaugural Old-Timers' Day in 1947. "I saw Home Run Baker hit a swinging bunt and he tripped over first base. I thought he fainted. I thought he had a cardiac episode. I was petrified in the dugout because I was the only medical student," he said.
David Wells was asked about Torre, with whom he had a rocky relationship. "We went out and did our job and made his job a lot easier. It's not that hard to write a lineup when you've got nine All-Stars in the lineup," the 1998 ace said.
Damon acknowledged he still has not officially retired from major-league baseball. "I'll probably announce it after spring training next year. Just that glimmer of hope," he said.
Damon played centerfield and looked trim in the four-inning exhibition. "I was very fortunate and blessed we were able to win a championship here," he said. "Because of that, I can show my face here as much as I like."
Ron Guidry said, "This is the best day of the year for us." This day featured a sustained ovation for Buck Showalter, the current Orioles manager, and thunderous cheers for Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. The crowd also got a kick out of seeing David Cone round the bases alongside Jesse Barfield, who hit a Cone pitch over the leftfield fence.
It all adds up to reasons why someone such as Matsui considers it such an honor to be part of the fraternity. Eventually, he looks forward to welcoming his friend Derek Jeter to the Old-Timers' Day roster.
"I said hello to him in spring training, but knowing this is his last season, I didn't want to bother him or disrupt him in any way. I just wish the best for him this season and maybe after he retires, he can come to Japan," Matsui said.
So what advice on retirement does an old-timer give to Jeter? Matsui said: "He's got to find a wife. That's first and foremost."