NEW YORK -- It has almost become part of Japanese folklore that Hideki Matsui, on days that he is late to the ballpark, atones for his mistake by hitting a home run. At approximately 4:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, the Yankees took the field in preparation for Game 2 of the World Series and Matsui was missing.
The team stretched on the grass, untangling their arms and legs in a series of exercises until they were limber enough to head to batting practice. Still no Matsui. The first group took their first cuts of batting practice. Still no Matsui.
Of course, by this time, the 100 or so Japanese reporters who follow every one of Matsui's moves were abuzz as to Matsui's whereabouts. Most importantly, though, they recalled that bit of Japanese folklore from Matsui's time with the Yomiuri Giants. Several of them remarked to one another to expect a home run on Thursday night.
"It's perhaps to make up for the fact he was late," one Japanese reporter explained.
Matsui finally stepped onto the field around 5:15 p.m. He eventually took batting practice, though clearly his routine had been interrupted. Several Japanese reporters will file in their newspaper stories that Matsui was late because he was stuck in traffic coming to Yankee Stadium from his home in Manhattan.
Sure enough, Matsui stepped to the plate in the sixth inning in a 1-1 game with a bit of fate on his side. Philadelphia starter Pedro Martinez started the at-bat against Matsui with two fastballs clocked at 89 mph. This surely was not the Martinez who has given Matsui fits in the regular season over his career (4-for-28), though Matsui has had success against Martinez in the postseason (5-for-15 entering Game 2). Martinez got two quick strikes and then threw a changeup for a ball to put the count at 1-2.
"In that particular at-bat, I was behind in the count and he threw me two curveballs," Matsui said. "It was low and a little bit inside, so I was able to make a good adjustment."
On that final pitch of the at-bat, Matsui smacked a ball just over the right-field fence for a game-deciding home run in the Yankees' 3-1 win against the Phillies. Matsui, who had keenly noted that Martinez now throws more breaking pitches than ever before, expected a curveball and got it.
"I was disappointed because, first of all, maybe the pitch probably wasn't the one I would have chosen if I was to think again," Martinez said. "But I was just into a groove and pitching and throwing pitches, and I just flipped a curveball out there and kind of paid for it."
Matsui arrived in America as "Godzilla," an almost mythical creature from Japan who could smack home runs at will. He was the first Japanese player to come to the majors as a formidable power hitter. Matsui has not quite lived up to that billing, and each year, as his body ages, he gets further away from being that feared monster.
Now, because of creaky knees which he ices after every game, Matsui no longer plays the field, something that will become an issue for Game 3 in Philadelphia as both teams will have to make do without the designated hitter. Matsui has become overshadowed by more famous players who have signed with the Yankees, such as Mark Teixeira, who it was said would help bring a championship to New York, something Matsui has not yet been able to do.
It was Teixeira's fourth-inning home run that tied the game for the Yankees on Thursday; the homer broke his horrendous postseason slump (8-for-43 entering Thursday).
"It was pretty special," Teixeira said. "My first postseason home run was a walk-off in [this year's ALDS vs. the Twins]. That was just a special moment in my career, and this one, just because we won the game -- if you hit a home run, your first career home run, in a game that you lose, it doesn't have any meaning. It's not very special. But [in Game 2 of the World Series], it was a good home run for me and for the team."
Matsui says he does not measure each season a success or failure based on whether the Yankees win a championship. It's simply not in his nature. But he's keenly aware that as an impending free agent -- who most likely won't return to the Yankees -- this may be his final chance at a championship with New York, his final shot at living up to the promise of his much-glorified arrival in America. Matsui said he won't even entertain the thought of being a free agent until after the season.
As he finished a media session with the American media, a gathering of Japanese reporters awaited him. This is always an obligation for him. He must do two sets of interviews. While speaking to the Japanese reporters, Matsui would not address his late arrival.
After the crowd around Matsui dispersed, one Japanese reporter headed directly to Derek Jeter's locker, where the Yankees' shortstop was finishing up his own media session. Slowly, the Japanese TV reporter inched his way up to the front and told Jeter about Matsui's legendary late-arriving home runs.
"He can come late," Jeter said, "every day."
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.