PHOENIX -- Japanese import Norichika Aoki reported to Maryvale Baseball Park just after 8 a.m. local time on Thursday and dove into a flurry of activity. There were handshakes and awkward bows from his new Brewers teammates, a brief hello from manager Ron Roenicke, athletic trainers asking questions, clubhouse attendants holding uniform pants, jerseys and helmets to fit.
Finally, the most unlikely of familiar faces.
"Hisashiburi ne," said Brewers right-hander Frankie De La Cruz.
Long time, no see.
De La Cruz and Aoki were teammates in 2010 with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and are now reunited with the Brewers as Aoki begins a new chapter in his career. He's was three-time batting champion in Japan, a six-time Gold Glover, a star, but now he's fulfilling a dream by starting over in the U.S.
"I actually feel like a rookie again," Aoki said.
He spoke through interpreter Kosuke Inaji, who returns to Milwaukee after working alongside reliever Takashi Saito last season. Saito, who has since signed with the D-backs, offered Aoki positive reports about the Brewers, the city of Milwaukee and playing at Miller Park, a conversation that made Aoki more comfortable in signing an incentive-rich, two-year contract with the Brewers, who will wait to determine exactly how he'll fit in until they see him in action.
That process began Thursday, when Aoki met the media, then took batting practice with second baseman Rickie Weeks on a back field at Maryvale Baseball Park.
"He's in America now," De La Cruz said. "It's different baseball. I know when I was there, he was a wonderful player. I heard people say he was the next Ichiro Suzuki. I think he'll be good here."
Aoki, 30 and a left-handed hitter, batted .329 over parts of eight seasons with Yakult, with 84 home runs, 385 RBIs and 164 stolen bases in 985 games. He batted better than .300 in six of his seven full seasons and was Central League batting champion in 2005 (.344), '07 (.346) and '10 (.358).
He was the 2005 Central League Rookie of the Year, a six-time Golden Glove Award winner and represented Japan in both World Baseball Classics.
"I've known since college that I wanted to play in America," Aoki said. "In that sense, I wouldn't say it took a lot of courage to [accept] the challenge over here. It's something that I've always wanted in my life. Basically, it's a new chapter in my life."
His family is on board.
"My father, he is a big fan of beer," Aoki said, smiling. "So he is really excited to come up there and try all of the beer in Milwaukee."
Up first: Six weeks of Spring Training in which the Brewers will learn more about Aoki's fit on the roster. They do not scout Japan, and made their bid based on reports from the World Baseball Classic and video. A contingent of Brewers officials watched him hit and take fly balls in Phoenix in early January before engaging in negotiations with agent Nez Balelo on a contract.
"We've worked out Nori, we've seen videos on him, we've heard very good things about his game," Roenicke said. "He's a well-polished player, so at any position we put him, or if it's to come off the bench to bunt or hit late in the game, he's able to do a lot of things to help us. How many games he's starting? I don't know that yet."
The answer could depend partly on left fielder Ryan Braun, whose status remained unresolved as Aoki met the media Thursday, a day before Brewers position players report for Spring Training. Braun has appealed a positive test under Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, but as of Thursday, five weeks after his appeal began, the result was unknown.
The Brewers made their bid for Aoki about a week after ESPN first reported that Braun faced a suspension.
"It looks like he really uses his hands well," Weeks said after his hitting session with Aoki. "You need to do that to be a good Major League Baseball hitter. He's way ahead of the game in that way."
Aoki will face adjustments both at and away from the ballpark. Japanese players typically spend much more time in training than their U.S. counterparts, and general manager Doug Melvin made clear to Aoki that club officials do not expect him to immediately produce in Spring Training games.
"He talked about feeling like a rookie, but he doesn't need to come into this camp feeling like he has to make our team," Roenicke said. "Of course, he wants to impress, and of course we want to see what kind of ability he has."
Versatility was key to the club's interest. New Brewers front office staffer Craig Counsell studied video of Aoki and believes his short stroke and all-fields approach could make him an effective pinch-hitter. Roenicke likes Aoki's speed, and the fact he could play any of the three outfield positions.
"I"ve already made a lot of preparations during the offseason in Japan," Aoki said. "Even here, there's only going to be a week or so before the Spring Training games start. I'm prepared for that. Basically, what I'm trying to do now is trying to get used to living over here, the little tiny adjustments I have to make between life over here and life in Japan.
"I actually feel like I am a Major League player now, wearing the uniform," Aoki said. "It's a very new feeling, and a very good feeling as well."