Interview Date: May 24, 2010
Nitkowski was a strikeout pitcher. His control over the ball was highly touted. So highly touted that the Reds drafted him ninth overall in 1994. I asked Mr. Nitkowski what it was like to be drafted so early and if it affected his play. CJ had this to say: “It was a cool experience. It wasn’t until about 2 weeks before the draft that I was told I might go that high. Usually, a player will have an idea months beforehand. I don’t think it affected me very much. There are some great perks that come along with being a high first-round pick. Most notably you will be a given a 2nd, 3rd and 4th look because a team made an investment in you. Also, the Reds sent me straight to AA so I didn’t have to go to rookie ball or A ball. I was fast-tracked through the system.”
But Nitkowski would get shelled in the AL. He still struck out far more batters than he walked but he wasn’t playing for teams that offered a whole lot of run support. Team after team would give him a try and pass him along to another team knowing that he still had a lot of value but unsure how to use him. So what was it like to get passed from team to team? “I didn’t mind it when I was young but as I got older it made it more difficult because I have a family. The advantage is you meet a lot of great guys and coaches. Also, I’d like to get into broadcasting when I am done and all these different experiences give me a well-rounded view of the game.”
But one particular team struck Nitkowski without warning. The Houston Astros released him unexpectedly. As a result, he was home instead of playing baseball when his son fell into a pool. To find out Nitkowski’s full version of the story, check out his website at cjbaseball.com. So I wondered if in some bizarre way he actually thanked the Astros for releasing him and if he was bitter being released before he saved his son from drowning.
“I don’t know if I was bitter but I was upset about it. It was just God’s timing and a part of his plan for my life. No, I didn’t thank the Astros for releasing me, it was never their call. I know that now and how life works which frees me up to understand the things that happen in this world.”
Eventually, Nitkowski would find himself facing a tough choice. He could continue to work through the Minor Leagues or accept an offer to go play in Japan for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He chose Japan. Nitkowski found himself being coached by the legendary Sadaharu Oh, the record holder for the most home runs by a professional baseball player in the world. I asked him how it felt to be coached by such a legendary character in Japan.
“I look at it as another note for the resume. Mr. Oh is a national treasure in Japan and has a prestigious place in baseball history. From that aspect, it was very cool. Playing for him, however, was a different experience. He is very tough on his players and especially foreigners. Overall I am glad I had the opportunity.”
I also asked him how he felt about the overwhelming opinion among my readers that Oh’s numbers were inflated due to poor competition in Japan.
“I think their arguments are probably warranted, especially back in Mr. Oh’s era when the talent was a lot thinner, they used composite bats and the parks were so small. Overall Japan has some good talent but it doesn’t run nearly as deep as MLB, not even close. The competition is not what is difficult about playing in Asia, it’s all the other things foreigners have to deal with.”
Nitkowski’s career is far from over. He is currently pitching in Korea and hopefully will someday reemerge with a team in the Majors. But a controversy in the US would find its way into his life in Asia. In early 2009, the FBI knocked on Nitkowski’s door to ask questions about Roger Clemens. I asked what that experience was like and how he felt about the use of PEDs in baseball.
“The interview was nothing too exciting. I am not really involved in that story so there wasn’t much to talk about. Baseball has done a good job handling the PED situation. It was bad at one point. They were slow to react but they have taken the necessary steps to ensure the game is being played fairly.”
And finally, for all of the collectors reading this, I have bad news. You won’t be getting anything from Mr. Nitkowski any time soon. It isn’t from a lack of willingness to sign for fans but rather a logistics problem. I asked him how he felt about fans asking for autographs and how they could contact him if they wished to do so. “It’s difficult for me in Asia to keep up with autograph requests. That is why I do not have an address in Korea for American seekers. I don’t mind signing at all unless I don’t have the time. Respect me and I respect you.”
So there you have it. A quick glimpse into the career of CJ Nitkowski with some information from the man himself. If you have any questions for CJ Nitkowski or just want to write him a bit of fan mail, he is very fast to respond through his website.