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
For The Associated Press
FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) -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.
The Japanese menu, in general, is not for those with weak stomachs. My wife spent a large part of her time in Japan during her first trimester of pregnancy, therefore she was even less likely to take any chances. Yakitori (chicken on sticks) and eel bento boxes were readily available and Japanese fans love these staples at their ballgames.
For the Nitkowski family, it was Wendy's and Haagen-Dazs at the Yahoo! Dome and that left them feeling like they were right at home.
A child's mind is a sponge, and it was incredible to watch our children take in the Japanese language. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to listen to my son correct my wife on how to pronounce Japanese words properly. ``No mommy, it's 'arigato,' not 'air-ee-gato.'''
They picked up the necessary phrases well and used them so frequently that even during bad behavior, I would get responses from my children in Japanese. Especially my daughter, who instead of using the sharp retort of ``no!'' would tell me ``iie'' when responding vehemently to something she didn't want to do.
Though I was proud of her Japanese, that didn't earn her immunity from talking back fresh to mommy and daddy.
The first thing the kids mastered is what the Japanese call ``Janken,'' or as we know it, ``rock, paper, scissors.'' Janken is used to solve any potential dilemma in Japan, and not just among children. It's more than just ``1, 2, 3.'' My kids picked up the entire process in Japanese, from the words to start it off to how to settle a tie. I try, but still don't know it and mumble my own interpretation.
Between school and television the kids were able to learn pronunciations much better than mom and dad. It really surprised me to see my kids watch Japanese cartoons. Not in English? Not a problem.
I have come to learn that what the cartoon characters are saying is not nearly as interesting to kids as what they look like, what sounds they make and what music is playing in the background. They would just sit there glued to TV for 30 minutes, giving the appearance that they understood everything that was going on.
The family experience at the ballpark was unique, too.
Our team takes good care of its foreign players. Foreign families get some very nice seats set aside by Mr. Sadaharu Oh himself, manager of the SoftBank Hawks and currently the only man in the world with more home runs than Barry Bonds.
Much like in the States, immediate family members pick up their tickets in a place far way from the rush of the regular game crowd. When my family first came to games at the Yahoo! Dome, the team would always make sure one of the translators was available to meet them and bring them to their seats until they were comfortable doing it on their own.
Part of being a foreigner in Japan is that you stick out in crowd. For my wife and children it wouldn't take long for someone at a game to figure out they were related to me, or one of the other American guys. My wife is an under-the-radar kind of lady, so this took some getting used to.
She had an unusual incident to start off the season. She had taken the kids to the concession stand when the announcement came that I was entering the game in relief.
Luckily, she was able to catch my appearance on a monitor, my first of the year. A small crowd had gathered around her, putting two and two together and realizing she was my wife.
As she tells it, it was a very enthusiastic group of about 15 Japanese fans. They were all very friendly, but she still was somewhat uncomfortable.
The only batter I faced that day got a base hit that bounced over the first baseman's head. By the time the right fielder had picked up the ball, my wife said the entire crowd had dispersed and suddenly she was standing alone.
As the season now heads toward the end, I can say the Japan experience was much more than I could have ever imagined for my family.
I was concerned my kids would get homesick and possibly be miserable here. I got confirmation that everything was OK from my daughter about three months into her visit when she asked me, ``Daddy, can we live in Japan forever?''
I like it here too, but not that much.

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