Commentary

Matsui moments best of home opener

The former Yankees outfielder got more cheers than any current member of the team

Updated: April 15, 2010, 8:40 PM ET
By Rob Parker | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It was only fitting that Hideki Matsui's return to Yankee Stadium was classy.

After all, so was Matsui's entire seven-year run with the Yankees that ended in grand style as the 2009 World Series MVP.

[+] EnlargeHideki Matsui
AP Photo/Kathy WillensMatsuit soaked in the adoration of Yankees fans on Tuesday.

On Opening Day in the Bronx Tuesday, it didn't matter that Matsui was wearing the enemy's uniform. Yankees fans, showing absolute class, didn't care that once the game started Matsui could actually do damage for the Los Angeles Angels.

For sure, this was a time to pay homage to Matsui, who wore the pinstripes with pride. Best of all, Matsui was a clutch player. Few will ever forget the World Series he had against the Philadelphia Phillies last season, when he batted .615 with three homers and eight RBIs.

That's why the sellout crowd of 49,293 didn't let this magic moment slip away.

Deep down, you knew there wouldn't be any boos when Matsui was announced on the public address system as part of the Yankees' World Series rings ceremony before the game.

The Yankees saved Matsui for last. It was clearly by design. They didn't wait to announce Jerry Hairston Jr., now with the Padres, who flew all the way from San Diego to get his ring on an off-day.

Fans stood and cheered long and loud for Matsui.

When Matsui stood at the top step of the Angels' dugout, you could see how touched he was by the ovation.

He jogged to the table set up in front of the pitcher's mound. He got his ring from Yankees manager Joe Girardi. He then gave Girardi, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford hugs.

With the crowd still roaring, the Yankees team, lined up along the grass stretched between first and second base, came out and surrounded Matsui. After pounding him on the back and tapping him on his head, each and every Yankee gave Matsui a hug.

It was real, genuine. It was the ultimate sign of respect.

"I was very happy," said Matsui through an interpreter after the Yankees' 7-5 victory. "I was very deeply moved by it.

"I did not anticipate it. It's something that I'll remember forever. I was very happy and very thankful for the way the fans welcomed me back."

The other surprise was that captain Derek Jeter exchanged Matsui's ring with a fake one originally. "I didn't know it was fake until Joe Girardi brought the real ring to me," Matsui said. "I actually just found out right now that Jeter did it."

When Matsui came up to bat for the first time in the first inning against starting and winning pitcher Andy Pettitte, the crowd gave Matsui another standing ovation. Matsui wound up striking out to end the inning.

The Angels, especially manager Mike Scioscia, were impressed by the Yankees fans. "The New York fans really understand baseball, understand what he meant to that organization, that team," he said. "They were very classy with the way they treated Hideki."

Most of those fans had to clearly remember the show Matsui put on in Game 6 of the World Series, when he tied the record for the most RBIs in a single World Series game with six.

Matsui was more than just a potent bat to his former teammates. They admired him for the way he carried himself as well. "I'm sure everyone's heard me say it, but he's been one of my favorite teammates I've ever played with," Jeter said before the game Tuesday. "He's professional.

"He came out here every single day ready to play, he never makes excuses whether he's not feeling good or he's feeling great. He goes out there and he plays."

The reason Matsui's in the other dugout has to do with business, not baseball. With so much money tied into Jorge Posada -- who will have to get at-bats in the DH spot -- the Yankees just couldn't afford to sign a player who could only DH and not play the outfield anymore.

For sure, the Yankees will miss his presence in the clubhouse and his real-deal clutch bat. Still, it doesn't mean the Yankees can't win without him or that the fans won't eventually turn on him.

You can bet those cheers for him on Tuesday will turn to boos if the Yankees and Angels meet again in the postseason.

Here, though, Matsui -- who went 0-for-5 Tuesday -- provided Yankees fans with the perfect Opening Day. They were able to cheer wildly for his contributions in the past, and didn't have to boo once because he didn't hurt the Yankees with his bat.

Rob Parker is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com.

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