Godzilla's monster mark
Sunday, April 23, 2006
By BOB KLAPISCH
Any amateur mental health specialist could've interpreted Hideki Matsui's facial expression Friday, when he took a called third strike that ended the Yankees' 6-5 loss to the Orioles. Matsui was a billboard of frustration, but true to his non-confrontational nature, he didn't argue the call with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, nor did he blame anyone except himself.
In fact, Matsui handled the near-miss the way it's taught in the instruction manual: He coated that final at-bat with amnesia, went home and started all over on Saturday. Matsui obviously recovered; he smacked a critical two-run double in the Yankees' 6-1 win over Baltimore, proof that he's as steady emotionally as anyone in the Yankee lineup, not to mention durable.
The Japanese star's consecutive-games streak stands at 503 -- exactly the number of games the Yankees have played since opening day 2003, when Matsui joined the team. He ended his career in Japan with 1,250 games in a row, making it one of the longest overall streaks in baseball history. Had Matsui's streak been played entirely in the U.S., he'd rank third on the all-time list behind Cal Ripken Jr. (2,632) and Lou Gehrig (2,130).
Matsui's willingness -- indeed, obsessive need -- to be in the lineup every day says plenty about his commitment to the Yankees, if not his good fortune. The left fielder laughs when remarking, "It could be over tomorrow, I know that. I could fall in my house and break my leg and that would be it."
Still, there've been plenty of opportunities for both Matsui and Joe Torre to end this run, if for no other reason than to give the slugger a day off when he's been tired or sore. But Torre doesn't want to get in the way of history and Matsui also knows The Streak is bigger than he is. When he gets up in the morning, it's his assumption that he'll be in the lineup, no matter what.
"I want to play, not just because of the number of games that I've played in a row, but because I always expect to have a good outcome," Matsui said the other day through an interpreter. "Even when I've been in a slump, I come to the ballpark expecting to do better. I always say, "This will be a good day for me." I never think about it any other way."
It's easy to maintain that confidence during the peak of a professional career. Matsui is only 31, and is hitting just under .300 in his three-plus seasons with the Yankees. This would be a different story if he were in his late 30s, like Ripken was at the tail end of his streak. Despite the universal respect Ripken commanded as he shattered Gehrig's previous record in 1995, he was never the same player through 1998, when the streak finally ended.
Matsui has no chance of catching Ripken, of course, so he would never object to Torre's benching him. Not that the manager ever would. He came close one day in April 2003, when the Yankees were unaware that Matsui had already made history in Japan. Matsui was out of the lineup for the first six innings against the Twins when Torre was told Matsui's record was in jeopardy. He then rushed Matsui into the game to replace Bubba Trammell, and has never again made that mistake.
Matsui says, "I have too much respect for the Yankees and Joe Torre to put myself ahead of the team," but until he hears or sees otherwise, the streak lives. The left fielder goes about his business quietly and professionally, having found his (low) profile.
He's neither the Yankees' richest nor most talented player. He's not the most popular star, either. But the Bombers also know Matsui will never embarrass the organization, his name will never come up in the current steroids scandal and he'll never be caught in some after-hours club with his photo on Page Six.
If a called third strike with the bases loaded doesn't push his buttons, Matsui's streak -- games played and his long road of perfect calm -- appears safe.