Book Review: Hideki Matsui, Sportsmanship, Modesty And The Art Of Home Run

Hideki Matsui, Sportsmanship, Modesty And The Art Of The Home Run
By Shizuka Ijuin (Ballantine Books, $19.95).

When you pick up “Hideki Matsui,” it looks like it’s just another quickie biography of a baseball star, the kind of book that quickly ends up in the bargain bin at the local mega-bookmart. It has Matsui in a posed shot at Yankee Stadium, looking almost retro in his post-swing gaze into the distance. Nothing on the cover screams, “This book is different.”

But inside, it quickly proves to be much more than the standard biography, as Ijuin’s poetic writing style and restrained manner makes for a very enjoyable read. The genesis for the book began with an interview the author did with Matsui in 1998. At the time, Matsui was already one of Japan’s biggest stars. A magazine wanted to do a profile on Matsui. He agreed to a sit-down interview, but insisted on Ijuin writing the piece, because he had read and enjoyed several of Ijuin’s novels.

At the end of that meeting, Matsui asked Ijuin to recommend some books for his offseason reading, which set the stage for their friendship to develop. Five years later, Ijuin found himself and his non-baseball loving wife driven to tears by Matsui’s grand slam in his Yankee Stadium debut.

In some ways, the book’s adoring hero worship of Matsui reads like a throwback to U.S. coverage of big league stars in the 1920s and 1930s. There’s a story about a sick boy for whom Matsui hits a home run and a sick girl whose necessary operation only happens because of Matsui’s generosity.

But more than that, the book helps to explain exactly what Matsui means to Japan, while also helping us understand what baseball is like in Japan. There’s no other way to describe this book than uniquely Japanese. The author sees the slugger as the embodiment of the Japanese way, a modest star who is one of the few baseball players left in the U.S. or Japan who prefers modesty to showmanship.

If you’re looking for a warts-and-all portrayal of a baseball star, look elsewhere. Without a hint of skepticism, Ijuin relays a story of how Matsui has not said a bad thing about anyone since he was in junior high, thanks to a promise he made to his father. He talks about how Matsui’s calm presence puts everyone at ease, and how he leads by example.

But it works, by the end of the short book, you’re rooting for Matsui even if you don’t like the Yankees.