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12/18/10 9:25 PM EST
Nishioka charms all in Twin Cities introduction
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- As he stood in front of a group of local reporters on Saturday afternoon at Target Field, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was asked his first thoughts about his new home. The Twins' new infielder smiled at the mention of the ballpark where he'll play next season, but the message that followed was that he hasn't exactly gotten a good feel for the field just yet. "It's a fantastic ballpark," Nishioka said through David Yamamoto, who was his interpreter for this visit. "I'm very excited to be able to play here. But at the same time, I only see white snow out there. So it's hard for me to kind of imagine the field precisely." With close to 30 inches of snow on the ground currently in the Twin Cities, it's no surprise that Nishioka had a hard time envisioning baseball taking place on an area that's currently blanketed in white. Nishioka will get a much better sense of Target Field this spring when the 2011 season starts. But on Saturday the focus was squarely on him. One day after agreeing to terms with Nishioka on a three-year, $9.25 million contract, the Twins introduced the newest member of their infield to their fans in the Upper Midwest with a press conference at Target Field and acknowledged that this was a historic day for the club. Nishioka is the first Japanese League player that the Twins have signed. They had previously been one of four teams never to have signed a Japanese League player -- leaving only the Reds, Marlins and D-backs now in that category. "We're very proud that we are a regional team and now we look forward to being more of an international team," Twins general manager Bill Smith said. "We're excited to have Tsuyoshi join our ballclub and we look forward to him being, hopefully, a big part of continuing the success that we've had as a team." A packed room of media greeted the Japanese infielder at Target Field on Saturday afternoon. More than 10 cameras were focused on Nishioka -- about half from the Twin Cities and the other half from Japanese media. Smith, manager Ron Gardenhire and club president Dave St. Peter sat at the podium with Nishioka and his agent, Rick Thurman of the Beverly Hills Sports Council. Also on hand for the press conference were many members of the Pohlad family, the team's owners, as well as current Twins third baseman Danny Valencia and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. After putting on his new Twins jersey, bearing the No. 1, Nishioka shook hands with Smith and signed his new contract. Nishioka will be paid $3 million per year under the deal, which includes a $4 million option for 2014 with a $250,000 buyout. Although Nishioka, 26, spoke mostly through an interpreter on Saturday afternoon, he had his own opening statement that he wanted to pass along to Twins fans in English. "My name is Tsuyoshi Nishioka," he said. "I am excited to be a part of the Twins family. Thank you." A warm round of applause greeted Nishioka's short English statement, which appears to be just the beginning of transition to American culture. Both Nishioka and his wife, Naoko, have expressed interest in taking English classes, and the Twins raved about the couple's interest in submerging themselves in their new surroundings. Nishioka will be the 52nd Japanese-born player to play in the Majors once he takes the field for the Twins. A switch-hitter, Nishioka won the Japanese Pacific League batting title last season after hitting .346 for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He led the league in hits (206), runs (121) and total bases (287), in addition to hitting 11 home runs and delivering 59 RBIs. The infielder also stole 22 bases in '10 and is expected to give the Twins more speed in their lineup, which is something the club has been seeking this offseason. It remains to be seen how Nishioka's skills will translate into the Major Leagues. But despite the language barrier, one thing definitely translated in Nishioka's initial press conference -- his sense of humor. When asked about his style of play and what he can bring to the Twins, Nishioka answered with a wry reply. "I believe my job is to step on home plate as much as possible," Nishioka said. It was after winning the Japanese Pacific League championship with the Chiba Lotte Marines this past season, Nishioka said, that he really decided he wanted to make the jump to the Majors. His club, Chiba Lotte, supported his dream and the Twins posted the winning bid of around $5.3 million last month to gain exclusive negotiating rights with Nishioka. Although the Twins had until Dec. 26 to get a deal done with the infielder, the two sides were able to agree to a deal more than a week ahead of the deadline. With his deal in place and his focus turning to getting ready for his first Major League season, Nishioka called Saturday, "a happy day." Exactly which position Nishioka will play for the Twins still remains a question mark. He has played both second base and shortstop in Japan, winning Gold Gloves at both spots. Gardenhire reiterated on Saturday that he will wait until Spring Training before deciding the exact positions for his expected new double-play tandem of Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. "I want to see how he turns a double play with his arm strength and his footwork, and seeing what [position] I think looks most comfortable for him," Gardenhire said of Nishioka. "He's got Gold Gloves, so I think he can catch the ball. Now, I want to just see what works and what it looks like with hopefully those two guys. I would love to see Alexi Casilla be the other side of it. I'll have a lot of speed up in the middle, a lot of slap and run guys." Nishioka didn't express a position preference, saying his focus was on winning. Instead, he showed off a little more of his wit when responding to a reporter's question on the subject. His answer in Japanese elicited a laugh from the Japanese media and, shortly after during the interpreted response, the English-speaking press was able to chuckle as well. So the transition sure seems to be off to a solid start. "I'm still a rookie here," Nishioka said. "I don't think I have any say to have a preference of playing second base or shortstop. I'm preparing for both. I'll do whatever the manager tells me. If the manager wants me to be a ball boy, I'll do that, as well."