Left-handed pitcher C.J. Nitkowski was a Pirate farmhand in 2005 and 2006, and his long and colorful baseball career includes stints with eleven big-league organizations. The Cincinnati Reds chose him with the ninth overall pick in the 1994 draft, and he rose quickly in the minors before being traded to the Tigers as part of a package for David Wells. He spent parts of the next several seasons as a reliever and sometime starter for Detroit, and later pitched for the Astros, Mets, Rangers, Yankees, Braves, and Nationals. He now plays for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the Pacific League in Japan, and he keeps an excellent blog about his experiences in Japan at his website, CJ Baseball.
Nitkowski recently attracted some attention at Bucs Dugout for some pointed comments about Dave Littlefield he made at Rob Neyer's blog. Nitkowski was understandably reluctant to elaborate much on those comments when I asked him about them, but he still gave a very candid and interesting interview, and he still wrote extensively about the Pirates.
Bucs Dugout: A number of baseball players have good blogs now - you, Curt Schilling, Pat Neshek. Do you think more ballplayers will start their own blogs as a way of bypassing the traditional press, and do you think these blogs will have much effect on the way fans get information?
C.J. Nitkowski: Guys that like to write will continue to have blogs. I don't think there will be a huge explosion, but it is a nice way to bypass the filter that is the media. It's also a nice way to clear things up if you're ever misquoted or taken out of context, but you have to be careful. Like Schilling on Barry Bonds, you sometimes need a filter.
"What I should
have done [in Detroit]
and what the young guys
should do in Pittsburgh
is look at the opportunity
as a stepping-stone."
BD: You've played for eight different major league teams, as well as a variety of minor league and now Japanese teams. Of what team do you have the fondest memories?
CJN: Tough question. Cincy because I made my debut there, you never forget that. Detroit because I spent most of my major league time there. The Mets because it was my first time playing for a NY team and I was there on Sept 11th, 2001. The Yankees because I grew up a Yankee fan, and Don Mattingly and Willie Randolph, both childhood heroes, were on the coaching staff. Atlanta because it was my all around favorite organization and Bobby Cox might be my favorite manager. Trent Jewett of the Pirates' AAA team in Indianapolis runs a close second, and it will be a shame if some major league team doesn't give him a shot. He is a great communicator and I think that is essential to managing.
BD: At your website, you've written extensively about your experiences with Japanese baseball. What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of playing in Japan, as compared to the U.S.?
CJN: There are a lot of favorites. I love the fans here and I love living here. I miss U.S. pitching mounds. The mounds here are a lot softer. I am used to them by now, but there are days I dream of Seattle's mound (one of my favorites) as well as the mound in Indianapolis and the bullpen mound in Oakland.
BD: When you end up in the minor leagues, how do you feel about it? Do you mostly just find yourself wishing you were in the big leagues, or are you able to enjoy it?
CJN: I have gotten to a point in my life where I realize nothing is an accident (The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren - Chapter 2). So when I am in the minor leagues I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be if I have worked hard and prepared myself daily to play baseball and I am continually trusting God with my life. When you are in the minors you always want to be in the big leagues, but I allow myself to enjoy where I am at that moment. I have come to the realization that I have been very blessed with multiple experiences in 14 years of professional baseball. I do what I can to share those experiences with younger players and try to be a guy who is there for them if they need advice or someone to listen. I try to be an encourager to other players and you can do that a lot in the minor leagues. I find a way to make playing in the minors fulfilling, and helping other guys does that for me.
BD: You've recently written that once people developed an idea of who you were as a pitcher, it was difficult to get them to look at you with fresh eyes even though you'd improved. What did you feel you did better in your last couple years in the states?
CJN: First and foremost, my mental approach to this game is so much better than it was for most of my career. That comes with experience. I have a better big-picture approach, which allows me to relax and enjoy competitive baseball. 2004 was such a great learning year for me. Time with both the Braves and Yankees was very educational. I played with two of the greatest pitchers of my generation that year (John Smoltz and Mariano Rivera) and learned a lot through both conversation and observation. I finished that season finally understanding what it was going to take for me to succeed consistently in this game. Although it has pretty much been all in the minors and Japan, I have been pretty happy with how I pitched since then (2005-2007). It's not even statistics but more about how I have been getting results.
BD: Recently you mentioned on another blog that when you left the Pirates, you sent a list to Dave Littlefield of the things he lied to you about. What was on that list?
CJN: That was something between him and me. I never intended to put Dave in a bad light. I like Rob Neyer's blog and occasionally chime in. I wouldn't feel right about sharing the issues I had with Dave that season.
BD: You also mentioned that Littlefield has a bad reputation among players. Why? And do you think Littlefield's reputation prevents the Pirates from acquiring good players?
CJN: What I meant by that was that I have heard a lot of stories from disgruntled players who have had a bad experience with Dave. The type of players I am talking about are predominantly fringe guys like myself - I hate the phrase, but AAAA type guys. I don't think it has had much, if any, effect on the Pirates' results in the major leagues.
BD: How would you say the Pirates' medical staff compares to those of other organizations?
CJN: I liked the major league guys when I was in major league camp in 2006. They seemed pretty good to me, no problems. The minor staff is great. They do an excellent job. They have some good people over there. I think the pitchers' injuries over the past few years were just bad luck.
BD: Based on your experiences in Spring Training and in the minors, how does the Pirates' coaching compare to other organizations?
CJN: I am a huge Trent Jewett fan. I really hope some team gives him a chance one day in the major leagues. I didn't get to play for Jim Tracy, but I like him, too. For me, he has very desirable characteristics that I look for in a manager and a person. I am pulling for him to have an impact in Pittsburgh.
BD: Does it surprise you that so many players (Pat Meares, Jody Gerut, Matt Herges, Dennys Reyes, Freddy Sanchez and Salomon Torres) have filed grievances against the Pirates in the last five years or so?
CJN: I am not familiar with the details of each situation so it wouldn't be fair for me to comment. The only thing I would say is that things happen, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. There is a process in place for when a player thinks it is unjustly and guys, rightfully so, exhaust that option to get a resolution.
BD: Do young Pirates minor leaguers seem excited by the possibility of playing for the Pirates?
CJN: Pittsburgh is a great place for young players and, conversely, a very bad place for older fringe vets like myself. There is tremendous opportunity to establish yourself as a young player in Pittsburgh. I compare it to my tenure in Detroit. I viewed it the wrong way at the time. I hated losing and was dissatisfied with how the team was run, and I let that become a distraction. What I should have done and what the young guys should do in Pittsburgh is look at the opportunity as a stepping-stone. Take advantage of the team's non-competitiveness as your chance become an everyday contributing major leaguer. Stay patient and you'll either price yourself out of that small market or you'll be trade bait in the ongoing rebuilding process. A third possibility is that the team becomes competitive. The error is letting the situation get you down and ultimately letting it get to you to the point where it affects your play on the field.