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A great family experience -- but hold the eel

August 12, 2007|C.J. Nitkowski | For the Associated Press

C.J. Nitkowski pitched for several major league teams from 1995-2005. He's playing in Japan this year for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and will file periodic updates for the Associated Press on his experience. His stories will be archived on his website,


FUKUOKA, Japan -- The cultural opportunity was one of the factors that made the decision to pack up and play baseball in Japan an easy one.

With a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, I knew the timing was perfect for them to both enjoy and retain a valuable life experience. And with the season better than two-thirds complete, it's been even better than I imagined for all of us.

Baseball players ask a lot of their families. For the past 14 years I have dragged my wife, Megan, to about 20 different cities, including Chattanooga, Detroit, New Orleans and now Fukuoka.

Once we had children the travel became much more demanding. Like most, my kids are resilient and always find ways to get comfortable in new surroundings. Despite that attribute, bringing them to a foreign country certainly gave my wife and I some anxiety.

We placed them in an international school for over three months, which we anticipated would be great for them. With children from over 20 different countries, my kids were intimately exposed to new cultures they otherwise probably would never have witnessed. Much to our surprise, they weren't intimidated at all.

As the principal told us on our first visit, it is English in the classrooms -- but on the playground, they are on their own. Your first thought is seeing your American child alone at recess with no one to talk to or play with.

That was hardly the case.

It was really amazing to watch all these international children make it work. English, Korean or Japanese, nothing could stop these kids from finding a way to play and have fun. It was one of those times when you are amazed at what children can do.

At the ballpark, our kids fit in fine. In fact, they started to think they were minor celebrities.

Whenever my family came to games, they would drive home with me. The walk from the clubhouse to the team parking lot included a stroll past a blocked-off section of fans asking for autographs. The numbers could range anywhere from 50 to 200 a night. Some nights I would stop, others I just wanted to get home.

One night a fan asked my son to sign an autograph and instantly he thought he was the coolest kid around. I can't blame him, though the young fan's reaction to getting my son's autograph was a little over the top for me. And can you really call it an autograph when it's only his first name printed much like the way you'd expect a first-grader to print his name?

After this happened once, the kids expected it to happen every night.

The topper for me was one night in June when I had already told the kids that we were going straight to the car, no autographs tonight. My daughter was disappointed.

As she walked past what she had assumed was "her" fans, she had a Hollywood starlet strut, waving her hand toward the small crowd and announcing, "sorry, no autographs tonight." My wife and I just looked at each other wondering what we were going to do about this.

One real concern we had at the outset was food. Kids can be picky eaters and mine are no different.

At first, we did it like most foreigners would, shipping a lot of things from home, mostly instant pancakes and cereal bars. There is no shortage of McDonald's in Japan, as well as Wendy's and Domino's. There is also a Costco in Fukuoka and these American chains were lifesavers. But at some point we knew we would have to venture out.

The biggest surprise came from my son, Matthew, who is practically a vegetarian. Carbs keep him alive. If we allowed it, I think he would eat pancakes, dinner rolls and pasta exclusively.

I had little expectation that he would enjoy a night of yakiniku -- Korean barbecue. Much to our amazement, not only did he eat cow tongue and other yakiniku meats, but he would tell you it is his favorite Japanese food (though it is not Japanese).

I convinced my son it was "man food" and this was how we build up muscles. He bought it. He also became a huge Ichiro fan this summer and he figured since Ichiro was Japanese he must eat cow tongue too. Whatever works, I was just happy to see him eating something different.

Surprisingly my daughter, Brooke, the carnivore of my two, wanted nothing to do with it. "Kekko desu" (no, thank you) was her response when offered cow tongue. I just don't think she could get past the thought that what she would be eating was once was in the mouth of an adorable cow.

Ballpark food, however, was a challenge that my wife and kids were not about to take on.

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