Iwamura fitting in nicely with Rays
Former Japanese star impressing teammates on, off field
ST. PETERSBURG -- A visitor to the Devil Rays' camp doesn't have to look long to figure out the whereabouts of Akinori Iwamura.
The Raymond A. Naimoli Complex has five fields for players to work out. So the trick to eliminating the other four from the process and locating the new Rays third baseman is to simply look for the crowd of Japanese media that follow him, chronicling his every move.
Even if the Japanese media aren't there, Iwamura isn't hard to find. There's the red and black glove he uses, his multi-colored bats, or the Oakley sunglasses with built-in earbuds and an MP3 player -- which he doesn't listen to during practice.
Aside from the colorful trimmings, the Rays hope the main course is what stands out most about their biggest offseason acquisition. Thus far, he's shown well.
"He's the kind of guy, you look at him and you'd think he'd be more robotic or choppy because of his body structure, but this guy's actually very fluid," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's different in a good way. He's a very smooth athlete, and I can see where he's got good baseball muscles or actions, and I can see why he did as well as he did."
During the first official team workout, there were a couple of problems that could be credited to the language barrier, such as Iwamura hitting to the left side of the infield instead of the right, or when the catcher called to the infielders on bunts. Iwamura threw to second base when he was supposed to throw to first.
"In Japanese, we say, 'First base, second base,' but here in the States, you say, 'One, two, three,'" Iwamura's interpreter, Masa Koyanagi, explained. "He just didn't know that 'one' is first base, 'two' is second base, 'three' is third base. That's it."
Still, Maddon doesn't believe cultural differences or language barriers will be a problem.
"My guess is that he is going to assimilate quickly," Maddon said. "He wants to be here, and he likes it. He's a bright young man, and I think he's going to get this rather quickly."
Despite all of Iwamura's flashy persona, he has cut a humble figure thus far when he's opened his mouth.
"The third-base position is not guaranteed, I believe, so I'm trying to do my best to get that position," Iwamura said. "I did not understand some of the things, since I was not used to the way they operate Spring Training."
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.
A month earlier, the Rays won negotiating rights to Iwamura through the posting system that enables Japanese players to play in the United States. Tampa Bay made a high bid of $4.5 million -- paid to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows -- that topped bids by the Indians and Padres.
Iwamura will make $1.8 million in 2007, $2.4 million in '08, and $3.25 million in '09. 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.
Inside the Rays' clubhouse, Iwamura's new teammates have already taken a shine to him.
"He's cool," Rays second baseman Jorge Cantu said. "Trust me, he's a cool cat."
Rays center fielder Carl Crawford played against Iwamura during a Major League All-Star team's trip to Japan.
"I haven't really seen him much here yet, but I saw him in Japan," Crawford said. "I remember he can hit ... and he had a solid glove. Everybody likes him. He's funny. I don't think he'll have any problem fitting right in."
Greg Norton said he heard all the stories about Iwamura's defense, and now that he's seen him, he's been impressed.
"He looks real good over at third, true throws," Norton said.
Added Ty Wigginton: "The little bit I've seen, he's got very nice hands and good feet."
Jonny Gomes, who took one look at Iwamura's colorful bat and said he thought it was a Mardi Gras stick, believes the team's new acquisition will fit in with what the offense is trying to do.
"Sure he'll fit in, definitely, with the type of baseball Joe wants to play," Gomes said. "[He can do] the hit and run and manufacture runs. I think he's going to be great for us."
And about that bat ...
"How about that thing?" Gomes said. "It's electric. But hey, I might be swinging that if it works."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.