OSAKA, Japan -- A new star from the east may be rising on the Minnesota Twins baseball team when the club opens spring training in Florida this month. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is an infielder who is preparing to leave his home and family in Japan for his new Field of Dreams half way around the world.
In the first of a two-part series, KARE 11 anchor Mike Pomeranz and photojournalist Jeff Wiltgen recently travelled to Japan to 'get to know' the Japanese star in his hometown of Osaka where he is working out and planning for his upcoming major league debut in the United States and new life in Minnesota.
Nishioka is a good-looking, 26-year-old, with a love of fine food, fast cars (he drives a Lamborghini) and his fashion-model wife. But in spite of outward appearances, Nishioka is humble and extremely grateful for his opportunity to join the Minnesota Twins. He signed a contract with the Twins back in December - a three-year deal reportedly worth $9.25 million.
On the day of our visit, Nishioka is spending a rare day off showing appreciation for those who helped him get to where he is today. It's the Japanese tradition of reverence.
He is visiting his old high school, Osaka Toin, a prominent and tradition-rich school where giggly teen girls and proud instructors await his arrival.
"When he was in high school, practice (was) very hard, but because he went through those experiences, he is here now," said Nishioka's female translator who is also with us.
Nishioka tells us that his school means a lot to him. The people here accepted, loved and nurtured him when his first choice, a rival school, rejected him and told him he wasn't good enough to play baseball for them.
Nishioka visits the school every year before spring training, but this year is much different - he's about to play in America.
"It will be different and he'll be lonely but he says that will be the challenge," the translator says.
"The top concern of myself is the language barrier," Nishioka says. "I am going to the United States so I have to be used to the culture and circumstances whatever the American people ask for so I have to get used to it as soon as possible."
Nishioka will have a translator with him in America, but also plans to take English lessons.
Inside his old school, Nishioka meets with his former instructors. His parents are there too. Nishioka offers gifts to those in the room, including an autographed bat, and he shares stories with his mentors.
Next, Nishioka prepares green tea for everyone in the room, signs autographs and poses for pictures. Every move he makes is gracious and sincere.
It's a proud moment for Nishioka's parents as well.
By his own admission, Nishioka is a blue-collar guy, the son of a now retired firefighter and a café owner.
"I am very glad to see him off to the United States," said Masako Nishioka, Nishioka's mother. "This is part of my ultimate goal to see my son playing in the major league baseball."
Both of his parents plan to come to Minnesota to watch their son when the season opens.
But before all of this success, they remember their little boy with the sweet, expressive eyes. They share photographs with us of a young Nishioka in an over-sized baseball uniform - a little boy who followed his older brother's love of baseball and made it into his own dream.
"What I want the most is a victory or triumph," Nishioka says.
Nishioka's former instructors share in the pride of the moment, and also in the high expectations he will carry with him.
"As a principal, I am so proud of one of our students that will go to the major leagues. And if he goes, we expect he'll have success there," said Shinichi Moriyama, Nishioka's high school principal.
Nishioka concludes his visit by carefully drawing characters on cards he'll leave behind to inspire others. The cards read, "Struggle first, rewards later." They are the same encouraging words his father wrote to him during an early career demotion to the minor leagues.
"I respect my parents so much," Nishioka says. "But as a person, I don't think I can be a better person than they are until they die or I die."
Better? Well, perhaps not. But, he is undeniably different.
While Japanese culture has historically transcended time, as the group drives away from the school, there is no denying the infiltration of western life and Nishioka, like many here, enjoys the mix.
He plays golf, likes American movies (anything with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), and listens to the kind of music he'll hear a lot of in the Twins' clubhouse.
"Hip hop and R&B," he says with a smile and without the help of the translator. He also likes Michael Jackson and recently attended a Lady Gaga concert.
"He thought she was really a good entertainer," the translator tells us. (Gaga) also wore a lot of red, he said, which is his favorite color.
Nishioka is now driving down the freeway and we are in the car with him. He tells us he has a lot on his mind about baseball and his move to Minnesota. His new job, he says, requires introspection and focus. For a baseball star in America, time for those things, is hard to find.
"I can see my own country from a different view," he says of his upcoming transition.
Also on his mind is his new bride, Naoko. They haven't seen each other in a few days. She is a fashion model working mostly in Tokyo. Nishioka lives in Tokyo too, but he trains here in Osaka.
Naoko will come with him to Minnesota when the baseball season begins.
"The challenge itself is really honorable," Nishioka says of his upcoming opportunity to play in America.
It's been a long day and at night, Nishioka wants to relax with friends. He takes Pomeranz and Wiltgen to his favorite restaurant that caters to his sweet-tooth and his love of fine food.
There is an elaborate cake, wheeled in with pride by the chef - featuring a prominent Minnesota Twins logo. And there is a Champagne toast to his new adventure in America.
It's a bittersweet night as all that he has here, will soon be a memory. At 26, he will temporarily give up everything he knows and loves, his friends, family and homeland for a shot at the American dream.
Those who don't know him may wonder if he's ready for it, but you can't deny what's behind his winning, million-dollar smile.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)