Matsui finds unexpected love at Yankee Stadium

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A packed Yankee Stadium crowd lavished love on their World Series heroes on Opening Day at the ballyard Tuesday, saving their biggest cheers for Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Hideki Matsui.

Matsui, Most Valuable Player of New York's World Series triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies, swapped jerseys during the off-season to join the Angels as a free agent.

New York fans, notorious for their 'Bronx cheers' of derision they usually shower on opposing players, showed affection for Matsui in a moving salute to the Japanese slugger during a ceremony to hand out World Series rings.

White-gold rings were presented to every Yankee coach and player, with captain Derek Jeter taking the last bow for the home team, exchanging hugs with manager Joe Girardi, 10-times Yankee champion Yogi Berra and six-times winner Whitey Ford.

It was then announced there was one more ring to hand out and cheers built to a deafening roar as Matsui left the visiting dugout to receive his prize.

As Matsui tipped his hat to the fans, the Yankee players who had lined up between first and second ran in and surrounded "Godzilla" in a unique reunion in the middle of the infield.

"I was very deeply moved by that moment. It was something I did not anticipate at all," Matsui told reporters after the 7-5 loss to New York. "It was something I will remember forever."

Matsui was so stunned by the gesture that he failed to recognize a prank pulled by Jeter, who substituted a giveaway ring handed to fans at spring training for the glittery diamond-studded ring that Girardi later gave to the slugger.

"Jeet thought it would be appropriate to put it in Matsui's box and play with him," Girardi said.

SERIES CLINCHER

The last time he had stepped on the diamond in the Bronx, Matsui received the World Series MVP trophy after an incredible November night at the plate against the Philadelphia Phillies when he drove in six runs in New York's World Series clincher.

"He's been one of my favorites team mates I've ever played with," said the Yankee shortstop, who collected his fifth World Series ring.

"He's a professional who comes out there every single day ready to play. He never makes excuses.

"I remember when he broke his wrist," added Jeter, recalling an injury Matsui suffered while diving for a catch.

"He apologized to the team for breaking his wrist. I had never seen that before. I think it's only fitting that he's here for Opening Day."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)