Playing a Different Field: Tanner Nishioka navigates life after baseball
Updated: Jun 30
Sun rays stretch across ocean waves that are stirred by surfers, while seagulls chirp loudly and palm trees sway to create a postcard-esque day at Waikiki Beach. Just. 2.5 miles away at the University of Hawaii, students and professors are making their way to class.
Tanner Nishioka is a medical student in Honolulu, whose weekdays are typically spread between attending lectures, participating in study groups and observing medical practices at the hospital. Yet, his daily routine looked completely different a few years ago. Instead of wearing a white coat, Nishioka was suiting up to take the field as a member of the Boston Red Sox organization.
At the age of five, the Hawaii native began to play baseball and was always active growing up. He eventually added football and basketball to his resume in high school, and was also known for his success in the classroom.
Nishioka is the youngest of four children and hails from a family that predominantly works in the medical field. He knew from a young age he wanted to eventually make his way into the profession.
“I was certain that I wanted to play sports in college and then potentially get drafted,” Nishioka said. “But the plan always included medical school, which is why I was pre-med during undergrad.”
Despite not being heavily scouted in high school, Nishioka grasped the attention of Division I institutions, including Harvard and Notre Dame. Ultimately, he made the decision to attend Pomona College in Claremont, California to compete for Frank Pericolosi. Pericolosi has been part of the coaching staff since 2002, and served as head baseball coach since 2003.
Pomona College competes at the NCAA Division III level as Pomona-Pitzer, two liberal arts colleges that combine to form one athletic program.
“One of my older sisters went to Pomona and my older brother played baseball for the school’s rival college: Claremont-Mudd Scripps, so I had been to the area a few times when I was younger,” Nishioka said. “Everytime I went to the campus I really enjoyed the people, food and the atmosphere.”
As soon as he began his freshman year, Nishioka wasted no time getting into shape to compete on the diamond as a utility player for Pericolosi. A characteristic noticed by many was his ability to consistently balance his athletic obligations with his rigorous coursework in a very impressive manner.
“Tanner was one of the hardest workers and he always held himself to a higher standard,” Pericolosi said. “No matter how busy he was with school, he never missed a workout and was always going the extra mile.”
Even though his dedication was visibly noticeable on and off the field by teammates and coaches, the numbers were also there to vouch for his success.
As a freshman, Nishioka competed in all 39 games, making the starting lineup 38 times. He recorded a .399 batting average, accumulating six home runs and 38 RBI. He rounded out his freshman campaign with several honors including the Southern California Intercollegiate Conference Newcomer of the Year, First-Team All-SCIAC, Second-Team All-West Region from American Baseball Coaches Association and Third-Team All-West Region from D3baseball.com
After his rookie season, he only continued to excel.
Nishioka garnered more SCIAC conference and regional awards as a sophomore and junior, eventually landing a spot on the All-West Regional and All-SCIAC First Teams, the SCIAC All-Academic Team and was an All-American Honorable mention as a senior. In his final year with the Sagehens, he was the DIII leader in home runs, collecting 18 in 39 contests.
He concluded his academic career with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and a 3.6 GPA. Next, came time to make a decision on what his first move would be in his post-graduate career.
Former Sagehen, Red Sox Player, and International Scout Department member, James Kang, built a connection with Nishioka when he was in college. This eventually led to Nishioka’s dream of playing professional baseball come true.
Kang was sitting in the draft room when Nishioka’s name was mentioned. Other members of the scouting department took notice of Nishioka's talent and wanted to see if he had any interest in playing for Boston.
“Everyone knew that he and I had been in contact before, and asked me to reach out and see if he would have interest in playing for Boston.” Kang said.
On Tuesday, June 13, it became official. Nishioka was selected in the ninth round as the 281st pick of the 2017 draft. Hearing his name called in the ninth round meant that Nishioka made school history as the highest draft pick from the Pomona-Pitzer baseball program.
Nishioka was at home in Hawaii with his family when he received the good news from Kang about the Red Sox wanting to offer him the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I never really believed that I was going to get drafted and was planning to go to medical school right away,” Nishioka said. “I was really happy and in complete shock as I never saw being drafted as a guaranteed thing.”
In 2017, Nishioka started his career for Boston with the former rookie league team, the Lowell Spinners. He continued on an upward path each season, moving to Greenville, South Carolina, the former Low-A farm team of the organization in 2018, before reaching the High-A level in 2019.
In 2020, the minor league baseball season was canceled due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. This gave Nishioka more time to consider what his life may look like after baseball.
“I began to think about retiring from baseball during COVID and had the idea that I could potentially be entering my final season when we returned to the field,” Nishioka said. “During lockdown, I was taking it day-by-day and was more serious about studying for the medical school entrance exam.”
Minor league baseball resumed play in 2021, and Nishioka found himself in Portland, Maine, competing at the Double-A level with the Sea Dogs.
Mimicking the balancing act of studying and playing baseball once again, Nishioka reported to work for the Sea Dogs while brushing up on his test-taking skills. Former Sea Dogs Manager, Corey Wimberly, knew the idea of going back to school was on Nishioka’s mind.
“I was aware of his thoughts on potentially retiring,” Wimberly said. “We spoke briefly about it as he would tell me he needed to get into the clubhouse early to study for his entrance test.”
After making only two plate appearances across two weeks, Nishioka got the start at second base on August 29 and determined it was going to be the final time he took the field.
His final game was one for the books as Nishioka went 3 for 4 with two home runs. He launched the first home run 480 feet over the batter's eye, the longest of the season at Hadlock Field. In addition to the home run, he achieved an impressive diving catch in the hole between first and second base.
To make the evening more sentimental, his older brother was in attendance to witness the storybook ending to his career.
“Throughout that game, I took time to enjoy the little things I never really thought about,” Nishioka said. “I walked to the plate a bit slower and admired the crowd that had always cheered me on.”
After sitting by himself in the dugout for a moment after the game, he walked through an unusually quiet clubhouse before stepping into the manager’s office to inform the staff of his decision. Some of the players knew what was about to happen as Nishioka had mentioned casually in the clubhouse that it was going to be the last time suiting up alongside them.
Once the conversation with the coaching staff was over, he was greeted with an uproar of congratulations from everyone.
“To me this was like his ride off into the sunset so I was really happy for him,” Wimberly said. I was excited that he was about to enjoy the next phase of his life, but of course, we all really missed his energy and competitiveness on the field.”
His career in Boston’s farm system concluded with a grand total of 219 hits, 19 home runs, 113 RBI and 16 stolen bases through 241 games played. Final career statistics include a .281 batting average with a .352 on base percentage.
Nishioka left Portland the same night and took time to wind down on his trek back to the island. Once he arrived in Hawaii, he made the decision to attend school close to home.
At the moment, he is still in the phase of deciding what type of medical field he wishes to pursue.
“Growing up in Honolulu, I saw how doctors would provide for the people and I wanted to do the same for this community,” Nishioka said. “I enjoy being home in Hawaii but there is always a chance that the residency portion of school could move me somewhere else, maybe even back to the east coast.”