They flocked to him as if he were still one of their own, embracing him like a brother.
The Yankees rushed to Hideki Matsui - the 2009 World Series MVP turned designated hitter/leftfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - draping him in their long arms and greeting him with handshakes and high-fives after yesterday's home opener ring ceremony.
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Matsui stood in the center of the cluster, serenaded by deafening applause as the Stadium vibrated with appreciation.
"I was very deeply moved by that moment," Matsui said of the ovation through his interpreter. "It's something I did not anticipate at all. It's something I'll remember forever. I'm just very happy and very thankful for the way the fans have welcomed me back."
He also didn't expect to be swarmed by a collective group hug from his former teammates.
"I didn't realize what was happening in the background," he said. "I wanted to say hello and greet everybody one by one; hopefully if everybody lined up. It really caught me by surprise."
So did Derek Jeter's prank.
Unbeknownst to Matsui, the shortstop had switched Matsui's World Series ring with a giveaway ring that had been handed out to fans at a recent exhibition game in Tampa Bay. Matsui, who didn't open the ring box on the field, said he was unaware of the prank until Yankees manager Joe Girardi brought the real ring to him in the Angels' dugout.
"If I had been aware I probably would have not allowed it just because it's a sacred moment," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who added that Nick Swisher also received a fake ring. "But boys will be boys and I think it represents the heartbeat of that 2009 team, to be honest. The 2009 Yankees team was a team that was talented, that loved each other and played with each other, too."
Matsui's solitary red baseball cap in a sea of white and black uniforms was a jarring visual - a sight few Yankees fans, or even Matsui, could have ever imagined five months ago.
"Before I signed with the Angels I did have thoughts I'd be returning to the Yankees," Matsui said. "But once I received the offer from the Angels, I made my decision. The fact that they really pursued me . . . that's when I knew I wasn't returning to the Yankees."
Matsui, who signed a one-year deal for $6.5 million, later added that the Yankees didn't make another offer in light of the Angels' proposal.
Matsui, who spent seven seasons in the Bronx, had downplayed his return to Yankee Stadium before the ceremony. But afterward, he said he was touched by the outpouring of affection from the fans.
"Perhaps right about the time they were about to call my name, when I was waiting at the dugout, was when I started feeling a bit emotional," he said.
Matsui, who went 0-5, received a second ovation during his first at-bat - one that did not fade until he tipped his helmet to the crowd.
Though he said he understood the Yankees had "their perspective" on his re-signing, Matsui smiled when asked for his impressions of the new Yankees lineup.
"I know they're missing one Japanese player from the team," he said. "But they're still a tough team and tougher than ever."