Iwamura a Ray of sunshine for team
Third baseman says he hopes to help club win more games
ST. PETERSBURG -- Personality won't be a problem for Akinori Iwamura.
The language barrier might present a few obstacles for the Devil Rays' biggest offseason acquisition, but during a Friday afternoon news conference, Iwamura proved such a barrier will not prevent his true self from moving to the forefront.
Iwamura celebrated his 28th birthday Friday, and the Rays presented him with a cake in front of a contingent that included approximately 50 members of the Japanese media. Iwamura wore a smart-looking pinstripe suit before slipping on a green Rays jersey with No. 1 on the back. He smiled when he stepped to the podium to address the media -- in English.
Among the highlights of his press conference: Iwamura goes by "Aki," he is from Uwajima, Japan, which is known for tangerines and yellowtails, and his favorite word is the spirit of "nani-kuso" -- which translates to "no pain, no gain."
Iwamura said he plans to work hard and that he hopes to help the team win more games this season. He finished his remarks by saying, "This is my best birthday of my life, thank you."
In December, the Rays signed Iwamura to a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $7.7 million with a club option for a fourth year at $4.25 million.
In November, the Rays won negotiating rights to Iwamura through the posting system that enables Japanese players to play in the United States with a high bid of $4.5 million -- paid to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League -- that topped bids by the Indians and Padres.
Iwamura will make $1.8 million in 2007, $2.4 million in 2008 and $3.25 million in 2009. The club has a $4.25 million option for the 2010 season or a $250,000 buyout. The contract also has escalating bonuses based on plate appearances in the first three years that could increase the option to $5.25 million, and the buyout to $750,000. The Rays' financial commitment in the deal -- including the posting fee -- amounts to $12.25 million. Iwamura will donate up to $100,000 to the Rays Charitable Foundation.
If Iwamura lives up to his expectations, Rays fans are going to fall in love with his million-dollar smile, along with his endearing traits and observations.
Iwamura wants to learn about the spirit of American football. When told Rays left fielder Carl Crawford used to play quarterback, he smiled and said he looked forward to Crawford showing him how to throw the football. Since he's playing for a team in Florida -- where there are alligators -- he is having a glove made out of alligator (although he thought about having one made from a devil ray). Iwamura loves to play golf -- he has a 12 handicap -- and watch movies. He watches the series "24" on DVD, and when the subject was broached, he chimed in without his translator, "Jack Bauer!" And he's also eager to know enough English to call the golf course and make his own tee time.
Rays manager Joe Maddon likes Iwamura's charisma.
"There's nothing wrong with flamboyance," Maddon said. "Joe Namath was pretty hot."
Iwamura was a five-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove recipient with the Swallows. He is a career .300 hitter, amassing 188 home runs and 570 RBIs in eight seasons with Yakult. He has hit at least 30 home runs and batted .300 or better in each of the past three seasons. Iwamura set a Yakult record for most home runs by a Japanese native with 44 in 2004. In '06, he played in a career-high 145 games and batted .311, fifth best in the Central League.
The Rays observed Iwamura playing third base for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, and his performance prompted their bid for his services. During the Classic, he hit .389 in six games for the championship-winning team.
Iwamura batted .440 with three doubles, a triple and seven stolen bases in the U.S.-Japan All-Star Series in 2004. He had a pair of hits off Roger Clemens in Japan's 3-1 win in Game 5 of that series. The following day, he had a double, triple and an RBI in Japan's 5-1 victory in Game 6. Iwamura then delivered a game-tying double in the ninth inning off Akinori Otsuka in Game 7, and he subsequently scored the winning run in Japan's 3-2 victory. He also played in the 2002 U.S.-Japan Series, and he went 2-for-9, with a double off Eric Gagne.
Third base is Iwamura's best position; he is known to have a slick glove and a strong arm. But he also gives the Rays some flexibility in the field, where he can also play second, outfield and first base, while adding a left-handed bat to the lineup.
Maddon said a lot of people told him during the Winter Meetings that the Rays were getting a "nice player," and he thinks Iwamura's defense should have a positive impact on the team's young pitching. But he might make even a better teammate.
"He's been a real pleasure," Maddon said. "I think he's going to really fit in."
Iwamura is the second player the Rays' new ownership has procured after going through the Japanese posting system to win negotiating rights. Reliever Shinji Mori was signed before the 2006 season before suffering a torn labrum during Spring Training to end his season. He is the third Japanese player signed by the Rays in their brief history, as right-hander Hideo Nomo was signed by the previous ownership and pitched for the team during the 2005 season.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.