By Jon Krawczynski
The Associated Press
FORT MYERS, Florida (AP) — When Minnesota Twins General Manager Bill Smith was interviewing candidates hoping to become the team’s first Japanese interpreter, he was looking for more than just someone who could translate for new second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
Signing Nishioka marked the Twins’ first real foray into Japan. They were determined to make his transition from the Far East to the American Midwest as seamless as it can possibly be for a 26-year-old who doesn’t speak English.
The Twins have people and players in their organization who speak Spanish and can help the many Hispanic players adjust to their new surroundings, but they didn’t have anyone in the club who spoke Japanese.
They hired Ryo Shinkawa, who spent last season in Boston as Hideki Okajima’s interpreter. The way Smith sees it, “interpreter” doesn’t do the job justice.
“Ryo Shinkawa is much more than just somebody to translate for him,” Smith said. “He has to be a friend, an ally, a confidante, a resource for him in everyday life.
“Going to restaurants and getting in a taxicab on the road, they’re going to have to travel together and they’re going to have to be together virtually every day of the season. So it’s a critical role that he’s going to play.”
Interpreters not only have to get to know the Japanese player, but they also have to earn the trust of a clubhouse fraternity that shuns outsiders. And the communication they facilitate has never been more sensitive than this spring, when players are trying to connect with Japanese teammates following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country.
“First, when I looked from the outside and didn’t work in baseball, I always thought, interpreters, it’s glamorous sitting in the press conference with the players and you’re on TV,” Shinkawa said. “But that’s probably 1 or 2 percent of the job.
“I think it’s more of a human job, being with the player and the teammates and being a part of the clubhouse for the whole season.”
That approach was evident from Shinkawa’s first days with Nishioka in Florida last month.
Shinkawa was in Nishioka’s hip pocket from the start, running conditioning drills with him, hustling to grab him an extra towel in the clubhouse, and even accompanying him on the field during practice to expedite communication.
“Since I don’t have baseball experience, hopefully, I don’t get hit by [a line drive],” Shinkawa said with a smile. “There’s no DL (disabled list) for interpreters.”
He is much more concerned with building relationships with Nishioka’s teammates, earning their trust, and putting them at ease with his constant presence on the team plane, in the dugout, and in the clubhouse.
“Especially since I can’t really do anything on the field, it’s probably harder for other players to see,” Shinkawa said. “They’re probably questioning, ‘What’s this guy about?’
“The Twins, they’re good guys and saying you’re a part of the team and I really appreciate that. But generally, I think it’s usually, ‘What’s this outsider doing here?’ ”
Hideki Matsui’s longtime interpreter, Roger Kahlon, has changed teams with him and regularly smoothed the batter’s way through his media-frenzied world.
Others, such as former Oakland and San Francisco reliever Keiichi Yabu, have fired their interpreters along the way when things didn’t work out.
When Ichiro Suzuki came to Seattle as a highly regarded rookie in 2001, team officials made sure he could handle the language barrier by providing him with the resources he needed to communicate. He had a new interpreter last season, Antony Suzuki, only because his previous translator has taken over as his de facto PR manager in the United States.
“When you are in between players, Japanese players and the other players, you need to get along well with the teammates because if you don’t, they’re not going to talk to you, obviously,” Antony Suzuki said. “You have to be social, obviously. You have to know the game. You have to be open to what they have in mind because you become their ears and mouth and you need to talk for these guys.”
It’s not always easy. Interpreters have to navigate the fickle environment of the clubhouse, ingratiating themselves with a group that can be hard to win over.
The Twins have never had a Japanese player in their big league club. So Nishioka isn’t the only one making an adjustment.
“We’re all going to take it in stride and we’re all going to help each other out,” right fielder Michael Cuddyer said. “Ryo is going to be a big influence to all of us. There’s a lot of responsibility on him as well.”
Shinkawa went to a university outside of Cleveland and started in baseball as a PR intern for the Indians, occasionally filling in as a translator for pitcher Masa Kobayashi.
Now that he is translating for a highly touted position player, and not a reliever, Shinkawa has been busier than ever.
“When I’m with Tsuyoshi, I have to be his mouth and kind of be him and understand what he’s thinking and communicate,” he said. “It’s hard to find the time to be myself. Hopefully, as the season goes on, I’ll get to know these guys as human beings and they’ll get to know me as well.”
Kent Yamada, who took over interpreting for Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka this spring, sounded like a rabid fan when he first arrived on the job.
“It’s been, just still, I feel unreal,” Yamada said. “I’m with Dice-K and I’m meeting all the big players. But I guess as time goes by, I will get used to it. It’s been, so far so good.”
If anything, the situation in Japan may be bringing everyone closer. Shinkawa said Twins players have approached him and Nishioka often to talk about what is going on back home.
It certainly hasn’t always been the typical clubhouse conversations about cars, sports, and music.
“I feel that dealing with the more sensitive issues on and off the field is why I am hired, so I don’t look at it as a challenge,” Shinkawa said. “If the conversation is all going to be about music, he probably can get around without one.” ♦
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, Calif., AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Peoria, Ariz., and freelance writer Maureen Mullen in Fort Myers contributed to this story.