Part Two: KARE 11's Mike Pomeranz meets Minn. Twins new star Tsuyoshi Nishioka in Japan

5:19 PM, Feb 8, 2011   |    comments
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OSAKA, Japan  --  Japanese baseball star Tsuyoshi Nishioka is just beginning his first spring training in America, as the newest infielder for the Minnesota Twins. KARE 11's Mike Pomeranz recently returned from Japan where he spent time with the 26-year-old superstar, who was preparing for his new life in Twins Territory.

In this second report of a two part series, Pomeranz catches up with Nishioka working out intensely at a training facility in Osaka, Japan - running, hitting, throwing and lifting weights.

Outside, fans await his daily arrival. Some hold signs. Others wave Nishioka's uniform from his Japanese team the Chiba Lotte Marines. Still others shout his name and sing songs. Everyone is hoping for a glimpse of the man with the golden chance to play Major League Baseball.

Nishioka has been a fan favorite here since he burst on the pro baseball scene in 2003, a fiery switch-hitting shortstop and second baseman for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He grew up in a baseball loving family and followed his older brother's love of the game.

The self-described blue-collar kid, the son of a retired firefighter and café owner, grew up admiring his home country's baseball heroes, but also those in America, like the New York Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter.

Nishioka, an easy-going infielder with a quick wit, says he is his own man and jokes when asked if he'd compare himself to Babe Ruth.

"Babe Ruth, yeah," he says chuckling at the notion.

It would have been hard to blame Nishioka if he would have chosen to sit back and enjoy the spoils from his success in Japan. He makes good money, has many lucrative endorsement deals and has been a media darling in his hometown.

He is prominently featured in ADIDAS advertising campaigns in Japan, among many others.

But as we learned in our visit here, Nishioka is not the complacent type.

After eight years in Japanese pro baseball, Nishioka's resume is full. He is a 5-time all-star, a 3-time Gold Glove winner and his teams have won the Japan Series twice. He even won a batting crown last season. But Nishioka says all of that was prep work for what lies ahead with the Twins.

Now, away from the glamour of the big stadiums and adoring crowds, Nishioka works tirelessly; six hours a day, nearly every day of the week.

He wants to make good on a reported $9 million, 3-year deal he struck with the Twins in December.

"As a player I would like to follow whatever my manager says," Nishioka said. "I would like to answer his expectations."

The Twins need him to play well, after purging their starting middle infielders from a year ago. So the work does not end.

Nishioka doesn't make any promises about his fielding percentages or likely batting average, but he does promise one thing.

"I will make an exciting play, but I will also make an exciting error too, so don't miss it," he said, flashing a wide smile.

Nishioka knows that success in America will be tough. Star Japanese middle infielders have not fared well in the Majors, and baseball insiders have been skeptical of his ability to buck the trend, but he is not fazed.

"I do not think about or worry about the articles about other players. I would like to play my own baseball," Nishioka said.
To ease the transition to the Majors, Nishioka will bring along his long-time personal assistant from Japan and he will have a full-time translator. He does however, plan to take English classes. He hopes to be able to eventually communicate with his manager and teammates on his own.

"Even though there are language barriers, I would like to communicate with (Manager Ron Gardenhire) as much as possible," said Nishioka.

He knows the value of returning home to Japan a Major League Baseball star.  Other Japanese stars that have done well in America,  like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki, are revered in Japan and their images are frequently featured in major ad campaigns for an array of products.

Japanese companies know the value too. While we were visiting in Japan representatives from sports-product makers pitched Nishioka on their products. He's an advertiser's blank canvas, and marketing agents hope he will wear their products in the United States.

For now, Nishioka continues to work out hard, practice and train in advance of spring training in Fort Myers, Florida.

Then, his new life will begin, with a chance for him to win the hearts of baseball fans in two countries. And even if he doesn't always have the words in English to express himself, he seems well on his way to doing just that.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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