He smiles and shakes his head slightly. "No, I kept it up. I was quite stubborn."
At 18 he was drafted by the Seibu Lions and turned into a shortstop. In his second year in the minors he came up for a cup of kohee. He figured he'd quickly be farmed back out. Instead he became the prot�g� of Hiroshi Narahara, the Japanese Ozzie Smith.
Matsui hit from the right side exclusively until the advanced age of 21. "The problem was, I couldn't hit righthanded pitchers," he says. "A coach told me if I went 2 for 20 lefthanded, I'd have the same batting average. So I practiced."
He now hits equally well from the right or left side. He homered from both sides of the plate in a November 2002 game against a traveling major league All-Star team. He hit .440 for the seven-game series and outshone teammate Hideki Matsui, who—confounded by two-seam, sinking fastballs—batted a mere .138. "While Big Matsui was flailing away," Whiting says, "Little Matsui was ripping major league pitching apart."
Big Matsui, of course, left Japan last fall after clubbing 332 home runs in 10 seasons and finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Little Matsui could have come over then too, but passed. The Japanese papers claimed his wife didn't want to move. "That is absolutely untrue," protests Matsui. "Only I can change my mind."
After the season ended in October, he changed it several times. During an Athens Olympics qualifying tournament in Sapporo, he wavered on whether to go to the majors or stay in Japan and play in the 2004 Summer Games. A teammate who had participated in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 nearly sold him on staying. "He said nothing in baseball compared," Matsui says. "It was a tough, tough decision."
In the end Matsui turned down offers from Seibu and the Yomiuri Giants, both rumored to be three-year deals in the $27 million range. "I may have to accept less money in the U.S.," he says, "but it's important for me to see how much I can improve as a player."
To handle his Stateside negotiations he hired Arn Tellem, known in the Japanese press by the oxymoron omoiyari no aru dairinin, "the compassionate agent." It was Tellem who delivered Hideki Matsui to the Yankees for three years and $21 million. "We feel he understands the needs of the Japanese people," says sportswriter Chiho Yamashita.
He also understands the needs of big league G.M.'s. Of the teams currently in the Matsui hunt, seven—the Mariners, Red Sox, Yankees, Anaheim Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets—have strong working relationships with Tellem. The other two, the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants, are long shots. Neither is known as a big free-agent spender.
The Dodgers would seem to be the best fit. Los Angeles has a large Japanese population (about 37,000) and an even larger hole at short. On top of that, two Dodgers pitchers are Japanese ( Hideo Nomo and Kaz Ishii), and the team's managing partner (Bob Daly) was once the boss of Tellem's wife, Nancy, now the president of CBS Entertainment. The only factor working against L.A. is money; the franchise is up for sale, and the transition to new ownership may clog the team's cash flow.