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Akinori Iwamura
Japanese star quietly vital to Rays' success

By Corey Gottlieb / MLB.com

He has some scrap to him, this kid from Japan who nobody talks about.

He is quietly aggressive and intangibly useful, the kind of guy you want on your team but forget to thank when raising your glass in an end-of-season toast. More presence than present, his role is rhythmic, that of the bass guitarist keeping time while the band rocks on.

So it is fitting that Akinori Iwamura secured the final out of the Rays' Game 7 victory over the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, and even more appropriate that he ran the ball unassisted to the second-base bag. It made sense that his was the fist pump that signaled the realization of Tampa Bay's dream, and that all too quickly his image faded into the sea of white jerseys engulfing the mound.

Such a scene is emblematic of the effect that Iwamura has had on the club, though fans might not have foreseen it when he signed a three-year deal back in December 2006. Tampa Bay made the move not a year removed from its previous endeavor in the Japanese baseball market. At the start of 2006, the club signed reliever Shinjo Mori, a five-time All-Star with the Seibu Lions, only to watch the would-be closer tear his labrum on the third pitch of his Spring Training debut. He has not graced a big league diamond since.

Age: 29

Hometown:
Uwajima, Japan

Japanese League: 1998-2006

Team: TB

Video | Player bio
But Iwamura's first spring with the club proved entirely different, as he left little doubt about his willingness to help the team at all costs. With his role not yet defined, the infielder showed up to camp with gloves for five different positions, making a strong first impression on teammates and coaches alike.

"He's been a real pleasure," manager Joe Maddon told MLB.com at the time. "I think he's going to really fit in."

And fit in he has, though not in the way that team management might have guessed when they first scouted him. Widely respected for his power-hitting abilities with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Iwamura averaged 35 long balls over his final three seasons in the Central League; in 275 games since coming to the Majors, he has managed just 13 homers. Chalk it up to tougher pitching, but Maddon will tell you the shift in numbers is a product of Iwamura's selfless approach.

"We need somebody like that on this team -- a poster child for working the count," the skipper said. "He's patient, and he makes you throw it in there. That kind of thing is contagious."

Iwamura is "somebody like that" -- patient, adaptable, open-minded, like he was when he moved from third to second base to make way for then-prospect Evan Longoria -- because "that" is all he knows. The son of a hairdresser and a retired firefighter, he grew up in a small town called Uwajima, living in a world entirely different from that which he now knows; he told the St. Petersburg Times, for example, that his current living room is bigger than his entire apartment was in Japan.

As a result, he understands altruism as a force of habit, generosity as a function of everyday life. Anything but the typical story of blue-collar-past-meets-big-stage-success, Iwamura's is one of great distances traveled and greater blessings appreciated. And so when he speaks of his experiences within baseball, he does so from a uniquely collective point of view.

"Hopefully I can help the team win this year," he said upon signing with the Rays.

Two years later, he has certainly done just that for the AL champs.

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