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Updated: February 17th, 2011 10:27pm
Pelissero: Meeting of Mauer, Nishioka puts new dynamic on display

Pelissero: Meeting of Mauer, Nishioka puts new dynamic on display

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The star crossing lasted all of 90 seconds or so.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, meet Joe Mauer.

Joe Mauer, meet Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Oh, and Joe? This is Nishioka's translator. And this is his personal trainer. And this is the other guy with the backpack who seems to follow the Japanese luminary-turned-Minnesota Twins curiosity everywhere he goes around the Lee County Sports Complex.

Earlier Thursday, three of the five Twin Cities-based reporters here greeted Mauer -- four-time All-Star catcher, 2009 American League MVP -- as he unpacked luggage, alone, from a cardboard Radio Flyer wagon box.

Fifteen Japanese media members tracked the latest workout for Nishioka, who answered questions and then jogged to the clubhouse with a three-man escort to try on equipment and meet the face of the franchise.

"So ... is everything, um, settled down for you?" Mauer asked, facing the entourage. He waited a beat, pushing the air downward in pantomine. "You know, settled down?"

The translator translated Nishioka's nod, and back and forth it went. Intermediated small talk between two 20-something stars from the same sport, but totally different worlds.

Of all the sights and sounds on the day pitchers and catchers reported -- Joe Nathan and Eric Hacker playing football in the clubhouse, Nishioka taking infield alongside presumed middlemate Alexi Casilla, Carl Pavano showing up sans moustache, a few dozen of fans watching the action (and inaction) through chain-link fences -- this was the one that resonated.

The public persona of Mauer, who signed a $184 million contract last March, is the epitome of understatement. He's genuinely uncomfortable in the spotlight and keeps his personal life as quiet as his wardrobe.

Nishioka, who received $9.2 million on a three-year deal to leave the Chiba Lotte Marines in December, is married to model Naoko Tokuzawa and was the only player on the field Thursday in neon-tinged Adidas gear.

As one Japanese reporter explained, "He likes flashy things."

It is common for top athletes in Nishioka's country to travel with a posse. It is uncommon for anyone in the Twins' clubhouse to receive so much extra attention.

And so in a spring that will focus heavily on whether some things can return to normal -- Mauer's knee, Nathan's elbow, Justin Morneau's head, etc. -- the one big difference in the clubhouse already is creating a unique undercurrent.

Nishioka's going to play. That became clear as soon as the Twins secured negotiating rights with a $5 million bid.

But will Nishioka blend into the clubhouse fabric, as new players tend to do with Mauer, Morneau, Nathan and Cuddyer occupying the corner lockers?

Or will the language barrier, the entourage and the foreign media attention -- however long it lasts -- isolate Nishioka in a way that causes at least a little discomfort?

The assorted minor leaguers taking infield alongside Nishioka on Thursday seemed to get a kick out of the TV cameras documenting his every move. And the response was equally bemused in the locker room from a few veteran teammates meeting "Nishi" for the first time.

Shortly after meeting Mauer, Nishioka shared a laugh with Spanish-speaking reliever Jose Mijares about an errant laundry toss that ended up in the garbage. Veteran Carl Pavano came over, too, and declared after repeating the newcomers' names, "This is going to be fun."

Mauer was typically cordial, leaving Nishioka and company with the words, "I look forward to playing with him -- er, you."

The response was another nod, another translation. Then Nishioka walked to his locker, posse in tow, and relayed instructions for tailoring his uniform pants.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, meet the Twins.

Twins, meet Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

And this is his translator, and his trainer, and the other guy, and the hype that's not going away anytime soon ...

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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