Early in spring training, it is foreseeable that Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will watch a pop fly drift toward second base as middle infielders Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla track it down.
Gardenhire may not hear either one call for it with the traditional, “I got it!” The familiar phrase could be replaced by “Watashi wa sore o motte!” or “Lo tengo! Lo tengo!”
“The communication thing is going to be interesting,” Gardenhire said with his usual grin. “I don’t understand either one of them.”
Nishioka joined the Twins this offseason from Japan, while Casilla, from the Dominican Republic, is getting another chance to be an everyday player for the Major League Baseball organization he joined in 2005. Nishioka only knows a few words of English and Casilla is much more comfortable speaking the Dominican dialect of Spanish, so one of the most important aspects of spring training for the Twins this year will be to get the two to find a way to communicate.
“My Japanese is working fine,” Casilla quipped. “His Spanish? No. Real bad. It’s like my English.”
Nishioka was asked later about Casilla’s Japanese. He chuckled and said, “We’ll make another different new language between the two of us.”
Gardenhire and his coaches are bracing for that.
“As (hitting coach) Joe Vavra said, he’s got his Spanglish down and now he’s got his Japanglish down,” Gardenhire cracked. “So we’re working on it.”
Casilla and Nishioka will be the starting middle infielders for the Twins on opening day, but Gardenhire has not decided who will play at second base and who will be the shortstop. Either way, they will somehow have to bridge the language gap.
Baseball is baseball in any language, but there’s no discounting the importance of middle infielders being able to communicate during games. From who covers second base on a steal to where to go on relay throws from the outfield to who has the best angle on a fly ball, all sorts of talking has to happen.
The Twins are pairing Casilla and Nishioka in the same group for batting practice and fundamentals to help them get on the same page. Nishioka has an interpreter with him at all times in camp, including when he is on the field for defensive drills.
“Follow me,” Casilla told Nishioka.
“Casilla’s been playing with the Twins for much longer than me,” Nishioka said through his interpreter, Ryo Shinkawa. “So for him to guide me through the practices, that will be something that will be very helpful and appreciated.”
Gardenhire has long been a proponent of one of his middle infielders “taking charge” of infield defense. He was constantly prodding former shortstop Jason Bartlett to be more vocal, but that could be especially challenging for Nishioka, who wants to learn English, and Casilla, who has been erratic during his time with the Twins.
“Our interpreter is going to be the biggest influence in the infield right now,” Gardenhire joked. “We’ll work our way from there.”
Then there’s first baseman Justin Morneau, a native of the Vancouver area, who likes to say that he speaks Canadian.
“All (Nishioka) has to learn how to say is `eh’ and we’ll be all right,” Morneau said.
In the end, success could be the most sturdy bridge for communication. The Twins are high on Nishioka, who won the batting title in his league last year and has Gold Gloves at both second base and shortstop. They paid $5 million just for the rights to negotiate a three-year, $9.25 million contract and Gardenhire has said several times that Nishioka has nothing to prove from a skill standpoint.
Casilla is a speedster who has frustrated the Twins in the past with mental mistakes and inconsistency. Nevertheless, he is being counted to replace either the steady J.J. Hardy at shortstop or the productive Orlando Hudson at second base.
Hardy and Hudson, of course, both spoke English.
“It’s Japanese and Spanish so there is somewhat of a barrier,” Nishioka said, “but ... we will be wearing the same jerseys and we’ll try to communicate and have it in full mode by the start of the season.”