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03/15/10 1:18 PM ET

Manzella works to learn Matsui's language

Shortstop builds vocabulary of Japanese defensive terms

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Tommy Manzella pulls an index card from his back pocket and scribbles a few notes. He wants to make sure he has it exactly right, so he goes over it once again with Yoshitaka Ono, the interpreter for Astros infielder Kaz Matsui.

He spends a few minutes with Ono before jotting some more words into a notebook and putting it away in his locker. Slowly but surely, Manzella is teaching himself to speak a little Japanese. Not enough to feel comfortable ordering dinner in a downtown Tokyo restaurant, but then again, he doesn't exactly plan on becoming fluent.

Manzella, the Astros' rookie shortstop, simply wants to better communicate with Matsui, the veteran Japanese second baseman who's in his third year with the Astros. Matsui knows some English after playing in the Major Leagues for six years, but Manzella wants to help open the lines of communication between East and West.

"I've been picking up on it pretty good, but just the basic stuff," Manzella said.

The idea came about when Bobby Valentine, who managed for years in Japan, paid a visit to Astros camp a few weeks ago and suggested Manzella try it. He has been trying to learn the language for only about a week, but already Manzella estimates he can speak about 50 to 60 words in Japanese. There is one giant omission in his vocabulary, though.

"I don't even have the word for baseball yet," Manzella said, joking.

Most of the words he has learned are at least baseball-related and concern defensive positioning on the infield or the best way to feed balls to Matsui while covering second base. He's also learned some numbers and question words.

"[Valentine] said it goes a long way as far as your relationship if they see you, not only them trying to make an effort to learn your language, but you making an effort to learn their language," Manzella said. "That's the kind of people they are. They show that as a sign of respect. He said take a couple of words every day and, by the time you realize it, you have a vocabulary of 50, 60 words.

"I was thinking that might be a good idea, and then I got thinking that I've got a translator here. I think it's good to try to learn a new language because you never know when you're going to need it. I've got a situation here where I have someone I can go to every single day and say, 'Hey, is this right?' and he can help me out. If you wanted to do that normally, you'd have to pay a lot of money to have that kind of a system."

To help supplement his daily clubhouse Japanese lessons, Manzella has been studying from the book, "Japanese for Dummies." Don't laugh. Manzella used the same series of self-help guides to learn to play guitar, so it has become an integral part of his learning process.

"It gives you good phonetic spelling with it, and it makes it easier because it groups things in different ways, and it makes it pretty easy to retain the information," Manzella said. "I go home and get those words, and bring them into Yoshi, and he tells me, 'That one's OK for here, but I think what you actually want to say is this word.' Once I get the actual stuff I want, I put it in my notebook.

"I usually put them on index cards until I figure out what I want, that way I can carry it around with me. And then once I get it into my head, I put it into my notebook so I have somewhere that I know is correct and what I want. I go back and look at it every day before I go to sleep. That's how I used to study in school, so it's a way that makes it easier to retain it."

Ono has worked with Matsui since 2006 and has been with the Astros since the player signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal prior to 2008. He said other players have learned a few words of Japanese to better communicate with Matsui, but few have gone to the lengths of Manzella.

"He obviously tries to communicate with Kaz," Ono said. "I don't know if he's going to do it with Japanese on the field, but it's good enough, and to see the effort to try to communicate makes Kaz feel more comfortable. He learned how to say little general words and count one through 50 and some baseball terms. The basic stuff."

Manzella, who earned a degree from Tulane University with a double major in marketing and legal studies, is understandably a quick study. He said the Japanese number system is logical and that if you can count to 10 in Japanese, you should be able to count to 100,000. That doesn't mean learning the language isn't challenging.

"I'm trying to understand tenses because if you put the tense on a wrong syllable that could mean a completely different word," Manzella said. "That's one of the things that's been tough to get used to. I try to do some basic words and some baseball words that help us, like 'harder,' 'faster,' 'left,' 'right.' Pretty much every day I try to figure out one thing I want to say to him, like, 'Hey, do you want my feeds harder?' or 'Do you want them to the left or right?'"

Matsui's limited English is much better than Manzella's beginner Japanese, so for now Manzella will stick with shouting "Mine!" in English when there's a popup in the middle of the infield.

"If our back's against the wall and we need to get something communicated quick," Manzella said, "we're going with English."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.