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Nitkowski's Japanese journey

January 21, 2007|From the Associated Press

Baseball has taken C.J. Nitkowski to pitching mounds all over the United States.

If a city has a professional team, chances are he's probably thrown a fastball there. Such is life for a journeyman left-hander, who's about to embark with his family on the most exciting road trip of his 13-year career.

Next stop, Japan.

"We're professional travelers now," Nitkowski said with a laugh. "We've got it down to a science."

Nitkowski won't play in New York, Houston, Chattanooga or even Albuquerque this baseball season. Instead, he'll soon be in Chiba, Osaka and Sapporo as a member of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan's Pacific League.

"It's a whole fresh look, a new opportunity," Nitkowski said. "Everybody I've talked to who ever played over there loved it."

At a time when Japanese pitchers are earning millions by coming to the United States -- Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Yankees' Kei Igawa led the list this off-season -- Nitkowski is heading overseas with a guaranteed contract of $500,000, or about 60.3 million yen. He negotiated the deal without an agent.

"It didn't take a lot of thinking because I had wanted so bad to get over there," Nitkowski said. "As soon as the phone rang, we were on board."

Packing suitcases is nothing new for the 33-year-old Nitkowski, who grew up in Suffern, N.Y., and went to college at St. John's. He has pitched for 11 major league organizations, including both New York teams, Cincinnati, Detroit, Texas and Atlanta -- and has almost every cap and locker nameplate to prove it.

"I enjoy the lifestyle and you know what you're in for and what the lifestyle takes," said his wife, Megan. "We go year to year, and each year presents its different challenges and circumstances, but we do the best we can."

The No. 9 overall pick in the 1994 draft, Nitkowski has an 18-32 career record and 5.37 ERA mostly as a middle reliever.

He hasn't pitched in the majors since 2005 and his career hit a lull when he spent all of last season with Pittsburgh's triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis.

"Honestly, physically, I feel like I'm still on top of my game," he said. "I know a lot of older guys probably say that, but there's no doubt in my mind that I've been the best I've ever been these last two years. When you struggle for a while, it's hard to get opportunities. You just have to fight your way through it."

With no set deal and the possibility of spending another year riding buses in the minors, Nitkowski weighed his options. He got a call in September from former major leaguer Lee Tunnell, one of his previous coaches.

Tunnell now works for the Hawks and asked Nitkowski if he was interested in coming to Japan.

After turning down an opportunity to play there in 2003, he and his wife thought the idea of going to the Far East was, well, far out.

"The fact that it's guaranteed money, it's a no-brainer," he said. "I had to take it."

Nitkowski will head to Japan on Jan. 28, carrying a few personal items, including his laptop.

He was one of the first professional athletes to create and manage his own website -- www.cjbaseball.com -- and plans to keep in touch with his family, friends and fans through the site and with periodic updates for the Associated Press.

His wife and children -- 7-year-old Matt and 5-year-old Brooke -- will follow Nitkowski to Japan a few weeks after he arrives. The team will pay for Nitkowski's apartment and provide him with four first-class airline tickets for him and his family, and an additional four business-class tickets. The kids will attend an international school before they head back to the U.S. in August.

"It's kind of surreal to look at it because I don't know what to expect," said Megan, who was Nitkowski's college sweetheart. "You live your day-to-day life and sometimes forget that there are other cultures and customs on the other side of the world that you never even think about."

Nitkowski, who recently moved his family from Houston to Alpharetta, Ga., huddled his children into his office a few months ago in front of the huge world map hanging on the wall.

"I showed them, 'Here we are in Houston. When we go to Grandma's in South Carolina, this is how far it is. Now look how far Japan is,' " Nitkowski said. "I try to get them to process that, which isn't always easy."

One of Nitkowski's cousins married a woman from Japan, so he's been picking their brains about what to expect -- and trying to learn as much of the native language as he can.

"I picked up the Rosetta Stone and started doing it a little bit with the kids while they're eating breakfast," Nitkowski said. "My son actually does a better job of pronouncing probably better than me, and definitely better than my wife."

Fukuoka will provide Nitkowski with three translators for team functions, but he won't be alone.

He'll have some fellow Americans in the Hawks dugout, including former major league outfielders Adam Hyzdu and Brian Buchanan.

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