Reflecting on the Nishioka Experiment
Fortunately, that burden was lessened today when Nishioka, one of the most spectacular failures in the team's recent history and an almost guaranteed non-factor in next year's plans, asked for his unconditional release, thereby releasing the Twins from their $3.25 million commitment to him next year.
It's a somewhat surprising development, given that there aren't many past examples of a professional athlete walking away from millions of dollars in guaranteed money. But to understand the decision, it might help to consider some of the cultural differences between Japan and America.
I'm currently reading a book called Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It details the true story of an American Olympian named Louie Zamperini who became a bombardier in World War II, had his plane shot down over the Pacific and ended up in a Japanese POW camp. It's a fantastic book and a highly recommended read.
At one point, in discussing the Japanese army's torture and degradation tactics with American prisoners, Hillenbrand touches on the psychology behind this sad (but of course hardly unique) practice:
Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose.
Now, I certainly don't mean to imply that Nishioka shares the mentality of a 1940s military torturer, but the passage above touches on a distinct aspect of Japanese culture that traces back throughout history. Pride and dignity tend to be valued more highly than most things, including money, which might be difficult to understand in our very different American society where the almighty buck is often priority No. 1.
In Japan, Nishioka was a preeminent star. He came to the States and was a total failure, unable to produce quality numbers even in the minor leagues. It's not hard to see how this could be extremely difficult for someone with such a mindset to cope with, and given that Nishioka's stock has done nothing but plummet after an abysmal rookie season, his outlook here was grim – grim enough that he was willing to give up millions of dollars to get away. (With that said, I suspect he'll be able to land a fairly substantial deal back in Japan.)
He seems like a perfectly decent guy who's gone through an inordinate number of bad breaks (both literally and figuratively) over the past couple years. He probably did both himself and the Twins a favor by asking out of his contract, and I hope he's able to return to Japan and regain the level of success that brought him notoriety there.
Meanwhile, the Twins will go back to the drawing board as they attempt to address their ugly middle infield situation. I applaud the creativity that led them to sign Nishioka, but going forward the execution will obviously need to be better.