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Reliving the Yankees’ signing of Hideki Matsui, 21 years ago

The winter of 2002 was an exciting time for Yankees fans. In wake of a rare first-round exit, the Evil Empire struck again and brought in “Godzilla” himself.

BBA-BASEBALL-YANKEES-MATSUI Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

It was 2002. The Yankees had won 103 games in the regular season and were looking to their own record with five consecutive World Series appearances after winning it all from 1998 to 2000 and losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 Fall Classic. The Bombers then faced the upstart Anaheim Angels in the AL Division Series and shockingly lost in four games.

All New York could do was wait until the offseason to try to make up for it. After reaching the last series of the year four times in a row, a first-round exit tasted like disappointment, so owner George Steinbrenner, wanted to make a statement. In true Yankees fashion, the Boss struck and signed Japan’s biggest star at the time, Hideki Matsui, to a three-year contract worth $21 million.

Yankees fans were quite familiar with who he was at the time. I remember being a 14-year-old fan, eager to know and learn about the Yanks’ every move and investigating this intimidating, imposing lefty batter they called “Godzilla.” The man had hit .334 with 50 home runs that year for the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, earning MVP honors. He tallied 346 bases in 140 games and posted an 1.153 OPS, his fourth-straight season with an OPS over 1.000. Matsui was a true monster, worthy of his nickname, and other teams coveted him as expected.

But the Yankees came out on top. That fact alone felt like a moral victory. Twenty-one years ago yesterday, the Yankees completed the signing of Matsui to bolster their outfield and their lineup. After all, Rondell White and Raúl Mondesí weren’t exactly world-beaters the previous season in the corners.

Just two years prior, another Japanese hitter proved that talented NPB position players could seamlessly make the transition to MLB play: Ichiro Suzuki. The former Orix Blue Wave menace immediately won AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Seattle Mariners. The New York front office felt Matsui could have a similarly smooth transition in 2003, and they were proven right.

The 50-homer power never truly translated to the majors, but that’s OK: Matsui hit .287/.353/.435 with 16 home runs, 42 doubles, 82 runs, 106 RBI and a 109 OPS+. He crushed a grand slam in his Bronx debut that April, and by July, he became an All-Star in his very first MLB campaign.

With the durable Matsui locking down left field for a team-record 163 games (thanks to a tie), the Yankees would storm back back to the World Series.

During that year’s playoff run, Matsui was no hitless bystander. Godzilla clubbed two homers and four doubles while driving in 11 in 17 games. One of those two-baggers was especially important, as it came off Boston’s Pedro Martinez in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and Matsui came around to score to tie the game when Jorge Posada did the same.

The Yankees beat the Red Sox behind these heroics as well as Aaron Boone’s, but the Marlins upset them in the Fall Classic. Although Matsui went yard in Game 2 and got the go-ahead hit late in Game 3’s triumph, a solid series was all for naught.

Matsui would finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year vote, but he was the deserving winner in the eyes of many. Some voters decided he wasn’t really a “rookie” given his 10-year stint in Japan — even though Ichiro, Hideo Nomo, and Kazuhiro Sasaki had won Rookie of the Year honors under similar circumstances. Two BBWAA writers left Matsui off their ballot entirely, and Kansas City’s Ángel Berroa won the award by a margin of just four points.

Matsui would go on to fully break out the next year in 2004, with a .912 OPS (137 OPS+), 31 homers, 108 RBI, 109 runs scored, and 34 doubles. In his first three campaigns in MLB, the lefty masher drove in a whopping 330 runs. Matsui spent seven years in the Bronx and more than did his fair share to earn a spot on our Top 100 Yankees list.

Those days in late 2002, however, were filled with hope. Just one offseason after splashing the cash and bringing in Jason Giambi, the Yankees did it again and secured one of the best and most prolific sluggers that the NPB has ever produced.

And even though the Yankees wouldn’t win another Fall Classic until 2009 — thanks, in large part, to Matsui’s contributions in what would be his last year in the Bronx — Godzilla was always a fearsome presence in the box. He terrorized pitchers with his remarkable combination of power and contact, and he struck out in just 13.6 percent of his career plate appearances, too.

Those were the days.

Matsui and Jeter celebrate Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images