FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the long rectangular clubhouse at Hammond Stadium, the Twins’ spring training site, Tsuyoshi Nishioka occupies a locker along the short wall near the main entrance. Logistically, it’s a good location for the club’s first Japanese player. Japanese reporters gather at Nishioka’s locker without blocking foot traffic, and Nishioka’s curious new teammates can stop by without being obvious.
The arrival of Nishioka this spring, via a three-year, $9.5 million deal, brought a measure of diversity and flashiness to a clubhouse that, frankly, could use a little of both. But it also brought questions.
How would Nishioka, who speaks little English, interact with his new teammates, and vice versa? Would the Japanese media covering Nishioka prove overwhelming and intrusive? And how would manager Ron Gardenhire, who often lacks patience with the benign Twin Cities media, handle daily questions about Nishioka from Japanese reporters with varied proficiency in English?
Several dynamics played out with humor one day last week, when pitcher Kevin Slowey ventured into the international trophy business.
The day before, Nishioka had two hits, one his first triple of the spring. So Slowey, with help from Nishioka’s translator, Ryo Shinkawa, took an old locker-stall door, used masking tape to fashion two Japanese characters that translated as “celebration” or “congratulations,” and left it on Nishioka’s clubhouse chair in honor of the triple. Everyone got a big laugh.
“I appreciate my teammates reaching out to me like this and making me part of the team,” Nishioka said via Shinkawa.
Said Slowey: “I go out of my way to talk to Ryo, and try to get a thing or two to say to [Nishioka] every day. It’s important that I keep trying. It’s great that he’s making an attempt to learn English. The least I can do is make an attempt to learn Japanese.”
Because Nishioka wasn’t scheduled to play that day, only five Japanese reporters witnessed the scene. In a moment of media savvy, Nishioka motioned Slowey over so a female television reporter with a small video camera could shoot the two of them with the “award.”
A few days later, things took a more serious turn with the news of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. Quickly, the Twins paired up Nishioka and Michael Cuddyer for a public service announcement, asking Twins fans to donate to the relief effort via the Red Cross. It ends with Nishioka saying, “Thank you,” in English.
No media mob scene — yet
The first weeks of spring training haven’t produced the media mob scene some Twins officials expected, based on Nishioka’s initial Twin Cities appearance in December, when more than a dozen Japanese reporters scrambled like paparazzi when he and his wife arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. (Nishioka, in cool designer sunglasses, played the movie-star turn to perfection.) So many crammed in for Nishioka’s introductory press conference two days later that owner Jim Pohlad and members of his family had no place to sit, so they stood against a wall.
Twins media relations director Mike Herman said 36 Japanese media personnel attended the Twins’ exhibition opener — some from print outlets, some television, some online. When Nishioka is in the lineup, 10 to 15 Japanese reporters interview him in the clubhouse after he leaves the game.
“Our relationship is very good,” Nishioka said. “The Japanese media understands how good a team the Minnesota Twins are. Hopefully, my play in the field will be reported in Japan to the fans.”
Occasionally, there are celebrity drive-byes. Daisuke Motoki, a former infielder for the Yomiuri Giants and a Japanese television host, visited one day in a suit and tie to interview Nishioka.
It’s not clear yet how many Japanese reporters will cover the Twins beat in the regular season. The spring training group seems smaller than the hordes that followed Ichiro Suzuki in his early years in Seattle, or even Hideki Irabu when he joined the Yankees in 1997. The reason? Money.
Since the Japanese economy is as shaky as ours, media outlets that used to assign one reporter to a particular player now try to cut costs by asking one to cover several camps. Yasuko Yanagita of the Hochi Shimbun sports newspaper, for instance, shuttles among the Twins, Red Sox (also in Fort Myers), Orioles (in Sarasota, about 90 miles north) and Mets (across the state in Port St. Lucie). Hideki Okuda, a Los Angeles-based freelancer for the Sports Nippon newspaper who previously covered Ichiro and Hideo Nomo, handles the Twins and Red Sox, though he expects to be in Minnesota for the home opener April 8.
For most outlets, Nishioka doesn’t rate exclusive treatment because he lacks the superstar heft of, say, Ichiro or Hideki Matsui. One exception is Kyoto News America, which hired reporter Makoto Morimoto specifically to cover Nishioka.
Curiously, several reporters expect their editors to dispatch them elsewhere if Nishioka struggles or is benched, a possibility Nishioka himself acknowledged in December.
“I do understand that if I don’t perform, a lot of media coverage will go away,” he said. “So I hope I keep a lot of media here throughout the season.”
Gardenhire popular with Japanese media
If Gardenhire’s popularity among the Japanese press is any indication, they may never leave.
After Hammond Stadium games, Gardenhire holds his postgame media briefing in the tiny office he shares with pitching coach Rick Anderson. The space is big enough for a desk, a refrigerator and a couple of chairs, but not much else.
One day last week, two female Japanese reporters lingered while their American counterparts squeezed by to go tweet, blog and write their stories. Early in spring training, Gardenhire asked Tamiko Tetsuya and Lynn Hayakawa of TBS Japan to leave him a list of Japanese phrases to try out on their peers. The women soon moved on to other camps but now were back to check Gardenhire’s work.
It wasn’t good. The day before Gardenhire mangled a couple of simple phrases, according to another Japanese reporter, who nevertheless appreciated Gardenhire’s attempt. Gardenhire confirmed one blunder to Tetsuya and Hayakawa by pulling out their “cheat sheet.”
“You know that blond woman?” he said, referring to a Japanese reporter who had been in camp the day before. Then he pointed to the sheet, which had two columns of phrases. “I tried to say, `I’m happy,’ but I think I said to her, `You’re hot,’ ” he said. Tetsuya and Hayakawa laughed.
As Hayakawa trained a camcorder on him, Gardenhire grabbed a set of placards that Nishioka made for him as a gag, purportedly to use in the dugout, with the English and Japanese words for run, slide and stop. That cracked them up, too. Tetsuya asked Gardenhire to hold up the signs for digital photos. He gladly complied.
“Isn’t he a riot?” Hayakawa said.
Fortunately, yes. Last year, Gardenhire let too many things get to him. The wisecracks and banter fell off dramatically after the Yankees took four of six from the Twins in May. Lousy starting pitching in June and the organizational blackout over Justin Morneau’s recovery from a concussion compounded Gardenhire’s irritation.
This spring, fresh off his first American League Manager of the Year Award, Gardenhire decided to embrace dealing with the Japanese media instead of letting it bug him. And both sides appear to be enjoying the honeymoon.
“I think we’re doing just fine,” Gardenhire said. “I understand they have a job to do, and I try to help them out as best as I possibly can.
“You can try to fight it, but that’s not going to get you anywhere. And honestly, it’s kind of entertaining. It’s something different.”