C.J. Nitkowski pitched for several major league teams from 1995-05. 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 Web site, www.cjbaseball.com
By C.J. NITKOWSKI
For The Associated Press
FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) -To enjoy Japan, come with an open attitude, ready to experience everything. One experience I was hoping to avoid this season was a trip to the minor leagues - unfortunately, it was not to be.
As an American ballplayer, I had always heard how awful the minor leagues were in Japan. I was pleasantly surprised with my experience with our farm team, or ni-gun (second team), as it is sometimes referred.
I won't give you my sob story, but will tell you I was caught a little off-guard when me and my 1.46 ERA got the news of the demotion. I spent three weeks in the minors and although things were a little different, they weren't nearly as terrible as I had heard.
One of the first and, quite honestly, most critical parts of the minor leagues in Japan has to do with salary. Minor league salaries in the States are atrocious, especially for players making their way up the system for the first time.
In Japan there are essentially no split contracts - your salary is your salary regardless of what roster you are on. There are very few exceptions of players making below the major league minimum of 15 million yen (about $120,000). So not taking a pay cut was an essential part of making this a little more tolerable.
Another nice aspect of the Japanese minor leagues, at least with the Hawks, was that I didn't have to move. Our minor league team is located in Fukuoka, just 20 minutes from the major league stadium. That means I did not have to uproot my family as I have done so many times in my career with all the demotions, promotions, trades and free agency. That made them happy, which in the end makes me happy.
Getting used to the minor league schedule in Japan takes some time. The season lasts as long as the major league season, six months, but there are only 88 games, as compared to the 144 the big league team plays.
In the States, we play 144 games in the minors over five months; the majors play 162 games in six months.
No matter how you shape it, 88 games is not very many.
All the games are day games, too. After playing predominantly night games with the major league team, that can also be an adjustment.
To be honest, this was a welcomed part of the schedule for me. My children were in international school at the time, so I quickly went from being home all day and gone all night to the complete opposite, which gave me significantly more time to be with my kids.
The non-game days result in a lot of practice. As a native ballplayer here that can make for some very long days - they love to practice in Japan. As a gaijin (foreigner), especially a pitcher, it can make for some really short days.
A foreign player is granted a lot of concessions in Japan and none may be more important to him than his right to practice at the level he is used to. The shortened version: I was home in time for lunch while most of the other guys worked until dusk. Guilt, you ask? Not likely. I am a quality-over-quantity type of guy. Get your work done and go home, the rest is just eyewash.
The travel is essentially the same in the minor leagues. We took a bullet train everywhere and wore the same team suit the major league team wears. The hotels are, well, minor league hotels with one major exception. There is no $20 per diem, as minor leaguers in the States receive. The hotels here provided us with a quality breakfast, lunch and dinner. A much better and more nutritious option than minor league players in the States are left with.
Each big league team here has only one minor league club, compared to the five or six that an organization in the States may have. That means Japanese teams are able to pour all of their minor league budget into one place - the 42 minor leaguers get a full coaching staff of six and a medical training staff of four.
Not to mention a strength coach, traveling secretary and a bullpen catcher, all full-time employees. In the States, minor leaguers get three coaches and one trainer. Ask any minor league trainer in the U.S. if he'd like a staff of four and he'd give you his left arm for a staff of two. They have the most difficult job at the minor league level with multiple responsibilities.
At the end of the day, the minor leagues in Japan were nothing like the folk tales I'd heard when I was playing in the States. Of course, if you want to come back to Japan, which I'd like to do, then you have to be in the big leagues performing.
I am glad to be back and hopefully I never see the minor leagues in Japan again. But if I do, I know it won't be all that bad.

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