With the Rays signing Shelley Duncan over the last few days, Rays fans have been reminded of a name they had all but forgotten, Akinori Iwamura, with the context being that Duncan slid high into Iwamura in spring training of 2008 in response to Elliot Johnson breaking Francisco Cervelli‘s wrist as he bowled him over trying to score a run. Speaking of Iwamura, where did he go?
In November of 2006, the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League posted star infielder Akinori Iwamura, a 27 year old infielder who was coming off a season where he had hit .311 with 32 home runs. Teams submitted bids for the rights to negotiate with Iwamura, and the winning bid was $4.5MM from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. One month later, the Devil Rays agreed with Iwamura on a three-year deal worth 7.7 million with an option for a fourth year. It didn’t take long for Iwamura to establish himself as an impact player. In 2007 for Tampa Bay, Iwamura had a nice season as the Devil Rays’ starting third baseman*, managing a .285/.359/.411 line (105 OPS+) with 21 doubles, 10 triples, 7 homers, 34 RBI, and 12 stolen bases in 123 games and 559 plate appearances. Iwamura did miss time from late April to late May with an oblique strain and then another five games after a bizarre play where a flyball hit him in the eye, but overall Iwamura drew nice reviews in his rookie year, settling in as the team’s primary leadoff hitter and finishing second in the American League in triples.
*Great trivia question: who was the Rays’ primary third baseman before Evan Longoria? The answer: Iwamura. The person you tell it to, even if he’s a big baseball fan, will probably respond “Iwamura was a second baseman!”
In 2008, Iwamura’s numbers slipped as he moved over to second base for the Rays as he managed a .274/.349/.380 line (95 OPS+) with 30 doubles, 9 triples, 6 homers, 48 RBI, and 8 stolen bases in 152 games and 707 plate appearances. But while his numbers were not all that impressive, he was involved in three events that played a major role in bringing the Rays together and helping their magical 2008 run fall into place. As we talked about above, Iwamura was slid into by Duncan to incite the brawl in spring training of that year, a controversial incident that helped the Rays unite as a team as they showed that the aggression Elliot Johnson showed in bowling over Cervelli was not a one-time incident and that they would not be intimidated just because they were playing against the Yankees (as pointed out by commenter Ryan Price on our RCG Facebook page). Later in the year, Iwamura helped unite the team on a much lighter note. In June of 2008, Iwamura got a mohawk-style haircut, and by the end of the season the haircut had become known as the “Rayhawk,” and was sported by numerous Rays including B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, and even manager Joe Maddon. Whether Iwamura actually started the trend is debatable (Upton got the mohawk craze going at the beginning of September), but Iwamura was one of the guys in the Rays clubhouse and a big part of the clubhouse chemistry the Rays were able to create. Iwamura’s third contribution to the Rays’ team togetherness in 2008 was much less debatable.
Iwamura had a huge ALDS for the Rays, hitting .389 with a homer, a triple, a double, and 4 RBI ove the course of the 4-game series. And while his average slipped to .207 as the Rays battled for 7 games with the Red Sox, Iwamura was the player who finished the Rays’ unbelivable run to the World Series, stepping on second base for the final out of the 2008 ALCS as the Rays advanced to the World Series.
Since he was converted to second base in spring training of 2008, collisions on double plays attempts became a ongoing story for Iwamura. Beyond being the player Iwamura slid into in spring training of 2008, it was also Iwamura who Coco Crisp slid hard into in June of that year as part of a series of events that would culminate with the famed James Shields versus Coco Crisp fight. But it was also a hard slide at second base that changed Iwamura’s career forever. On May 22nd, 2009, Iwamura was trying to turn a double play when the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan slid into him to try to break it up, and Iwamura immediately fell to the ground and could not get up. He was eventually carted off the field and diagnosed with a torn ACL in his right knee. He wouldn’t return until August 29th and managed just a .250/.310/.355 line in 84 plate appearances after returning.
The Rays picked up Iwamura’s $4.25MM option following the season but immediately realized that he was not the same player and traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for right-hander Jesse Chavez. The Rays’ suspicions proved correct as Iwamura struggled mightily between the Pirates and Athletics in 2010, managing just a .173/.285/.250 line in 229 plate appearances. He returned to Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles for 2011 and hoped to resuscitate his career- he was only 32 years old- but the results were just as bad as he hit .183 in 197 plate appearances. Iwamura continued to struggle immensely in 79 plate appearances for the Golden Eagles in 2012, managing just a .209/.316/.343 line before getting released. After years of stardom in Japan and two nice seasons with the Rays in America, Iwamura’s career appears to be all but done at the age of 33 years old.
It’s sad to hear about what happened to Akinori Iwamura and Rays fans have to be feeling just a little bit guilty about basically forgetting him. You can’t blame them- Ben Zobrist stepped in for Iwamura at second base in 2009 and quickly became a star- but after Iwamura was such a big part of the Rays’ 2008 World Series run, how could he simply fade away from everyone’s memory? It’s unfortunate, but it also happens to be the way our culture works these days- if a popular player or actor or whoever who isn’t a star happens upon hard luck and can’t overcome it, we move on to others who attract our attention and it can be weeks or months or years before we think about them again. Akinori Iwamura is long gone from Rays fans’ collective conscience, but he deserves to be remembered as a good baseball player for a time and a key contributor to the Rays’ 2008 World Series run on and off the field.