FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — More than a dozen journalists were waiting at the doorway to the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, and for once they weren’t looking for Joe Mauer.
Nishimania swept into Twins camp on Tuesday, with Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka getting settled into his locker at the team’s spring training complex in advance of the first full-squad workout on Wednesday. Reporters from Nishioka’s homeland were there to document it, giving the Twins the first real taste of what life will be like with a high-profile Japanese player on the roster.
“How many channels do they have in Japan?” Twins prospect Rene Tosoni said as the 13 journalists surrounded Nishioka at his locker.
So begin the adjustments — for Nishioka as he moves from his Japanese league to the major leagues and for the Twins, many of whom will be playing with a Japanese player for the first time.
The Twins have one of the most aggressive international scouting departments in the big leagues, with players signed from Latin America, Australia and even Europe in their system. But when they signed Nishioka to a three-year, $9.25 million deal in December, it was the first time they mined the Japanese leagues for help.
So now the Twins are trying to figure out how best to make Nishioka, who speaks only a little English but is learning, feel a part of the team.
“Yeah it’s still baseball when you get in between the white lines, but it’s a different culture,” outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. “That’s going to be a challenge but it’s going to be something we’re going to be able to learn along the way. He’s going to be able to learn along the way and we’re all going to help each other out.”
Everything will be made easier if he produces like he did for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball last season. The 26-year-old Nishioka led the league with a .346 average and won a Gold Glove at shortstop. He brings the kind of speed on the bases the Twins have lacked in recent years and he will replace either J.J. Hardy at shortstop or Orlando Hudson at second base.
The transition, both professionally and personally, from Japan to the United States figures to be challenging.
When asked what he thought the toughest adjustment will be, he replied quickly through interpreter Ryo Shinkawa: “Everything.”
Nishioka is used to spring training starting early in February in Japan, so he arrived in Fort Myers early and has been working out on his own, away from the pitchers and catchers, and select position players, who have arrived at camp over the last few weeks.
His first appearance in front of most of the team came on Tuesday morning, and he went down one side of the room, shaking every player’s hand formally, one after another.
“I feel that, from participating in this meeting, there is a family atmosphere here,” Nishioka said. “It’s an honor to be a part of this … and I’m looking forward to participating in the practices (starting) tomorrow.”
The Twins will hold their first full-squad workout on Wednesday, and they are eager to see just how Nishioka’s skills will translate stateside.
It is already apparent that he has a little flair, both in his wardrobe and his game. Nishioka has been wearing his own Adidas workout gear so far at the team complex. On Tuesday, his attire included a black pullover with “Tsuyoshi” scripted in red across the chest. He also wore white capri-style pants with gold trim that matched his top, atypical dress for American players at work.
But he seemed a little bashful in person, perhaps slightly embarrassed by all the attention.
“We know the young man can play baseball and that he doesn’t have anything to prove over here,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We just want him to fit in and be a part of it and do his work and get to know everybody and all of those things.”
The Twins are taking a few steps to try to make that process as easy as possible. His interpreter will be in the field with him, wearing a glove, during drills to ensure fast and easy communication. Gardenhire has a list of baseball terms in Japanese in his office, along with a manual entitled “Survival Japanese” that he is studying.
“Once we get out there together and start playing games, we’ll see what he can do and he’ll see what we can do and all the rest of it, you’ll start to feel comfortable around each other,” first baseman Justin Morneau said. “It should be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
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