By John Perrotto
The Pirates’ clubhouse became a very quiet place over the final two months of last season after general manager Neal Huntington made a series of seven trades in June and July.
The veteran core of the team was gone and in their place were a group of young players from various organizations who were getting to know each other. That did not make for a very cohesive unit. Throw in the stress of losing 23 of 26 games at one stretch in September and the clubhouse atmosphere became nearly funereal.
However, the acquisition of second baseman Akinori Iwamura from the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade for reliever Jesse Chavez on Tuesday might add some life to the Pirates’ clubhouse. Though Iwamura is a native of Japan and still does not speak fluent English, he was a popular figure among his Rays’ teammates.
“He likes to be in the middle of everything,” said Gaku Tashiro, who works for the Japanese daily Sankei Sport and is one of the top baseball writers in Japan. “He has a lot of personality. He likes to talk to the media. He likes to have fun with his teammates. He is a likeable guy.”
“He’s the perfect definition of a ballplayer,” Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. “He’s a great teammate, great in the clubhouse and he’s also a great player on the field.”
Iwamura will bring some attitude to the Pirates as he enjoys the spotlight and is a bit of a maverick with his hair dyed blonde, his silver chains and a glove that is made partially out of alligator skin. He also earned the nickname “Top Gun” during his nine seasons in Japan for his outstanding arm and has his own web site: gun1.nifty.com.
“He plays with the kind of flair that really reminds you more of a Latin player,” said ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine, who managed Iwamura in Japan with the Yakult Swallows.
Iwamura also proudly wore the No. 1 for the Rays, the number he received while playing for the Swallows in honor of being their franchise player. However, Iwamura won’t be able to wear his favorite number with the Pirates as it is retired in honor of former manager Billy Meyer.
“We think he is going to be an important player for us on and off the field,” Huntington said. “We have a young team and feel Akinori can really help our younger players with his experience.”