Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Beware of Aki Fever! You might get it too!

What can I say? A lot of things, I guess. A lot of things that get me in trouble it seems and even more things that fall upon no ears more often than deaf ears, but let it be known - Manny Stiles has a case of Aki Fever.

Aki Fever is catching all over. It started in Japan and came to the United States via import into the Tampa, Florida area this winter. Some cases of Aki Fever may be worse than mine, but not many. It starts out slowly; almost like a subtle intrigue, then it grows with careful nurture through a petri dish of passive attention and lessened expectations. Then before you know it.... WHAM! You've got Aki Fever and you're down for the count just like me!

What is it about Akinori Iwamura? Is it his similar, but a bit smoother to watch Ichiro-like plate approach? Is it his vacuum-like fielding and laser-scoped rifle throwing arm? Is it the cooler-than-an-Eskimo's-toilet-seat-way he wears his extraneous gear? Is it the Alligator skin webbing in his glove? (how cool is THAT in Florida?). Maybe it's his on-line diary (it is sooo much cooler when you don't call it a blog, eh?) or how he came to the U.S. with virtually no fanfare (especially considering the slobbering upon the media gave the other AL EAST imports from the Far East, Dice-K and Kei Igawa. Did I state that Yankees and Red Sox players all suck and are jerks? There's another reason...)

Who cares why? I've got Aki Fever, Doctor! I think I've fallen and I don't want to get up!

Maybe it's that he just turned 28 in February (an Aquarius!) and should be smack dab in the front end of the prime of his career. Maybe it's because he was the first Devil Ray to accumulate 10 hits on the season. Or that he leads the team in runs scored. Or that he has been not just flawless in the field, but spectacular!

Maybe it's his .500 batting average through the first 6 games of his MLB career and subsequent 6 game hitting streak? (the hottest start of ANY Japanese rookie ever in the Majors) Or that he's the first Japanese corner infielder to break in MLB? Or his 1.300 OPS? Or team lead in stolen bases (OK, tied with 2 other guys with 2 SBs). To see the guy play is like a breath of fresh air. He seems so smooth, so fluid, so sure. I almost WANT to see balls hit at him so I can watch it get replayed on Web Gems later.

And it's not just his game play that's refreshing. He truly seems to be a genuinely likable dude. He comes off as a pretty down to earth dude for a 5-time Japanese League All Star. He has a cool confidence that everyone could use a little of...

Then again, I do have a tender, warm and tingly spot deep in the icky cochals of my heart for guys who wear #1 on their jerseys...

The scouting reports before the season were pretty reserved, but a few reports did state to the effect that "the Devil Rays got a steal" and "his game could translate better to the American game than most players from Japan". Here was a +.300 hitter with 20+ HR power and a 6 time Gold Glove fielder in Japan, we knew that much, but in Spring Training.... BOY did he get off to an icy start in Spring Training.

But you know what? WHY wouldn't he? He's a guy who traveled (literally) half-way around the world, disrupted his family, his home, basically his entire world to play baseball in the Major Leagues. But he didn't disrupt his essence. He had to find a new place to live, learn his way around, work with a new language, new customs and new social structures. He had all new teammates, all new pitchers to face and a pretty tough Spring Training field in which to hit. And it took a while for him to get rolling, but... uhh... he's rolling!

Now, do I think he's gonna be a 5 -time All Star here in the States? Probably not, third base in the AL isn't what it used to be (remember, Scott Brosius was an All-Star third baseman once), not with A-Rod, Eric Chavez, Melvin Mora, Adrian Beltre and Troy Glaus patrolling the hot corner with youngsters Alex Gordon and Andy Marte blossoming soon as well… it’s a tough spot to shine over the rest. But so far, so good! And maybe he can start collecting the [[Gold GloveShiny Leathers] over here in the States, too.

Coming into the season, I figured the Rays signed Iwamura simply to keep third warm for the eventual call-up of stellar prospect Evan Longoria. The posting fee was peanuts ($4.5 million) compared to Dice K and Igawa's and his contract was really reasonable (3 years, $7.7mil with a team option for a fourth year at $4.25mil). Now we got a logjam at third as well as the outfield! It's not a bad problem to have too much talent to go around. I tell you as a Devil Rays fan, it's getting brighter every day! I know the Devil Ray lifers are excited and enjoying this season more than most. (I guess I can take all the credit?)

Here's an excerpt from Aki's online diary this week, talking about scoring the winning run in the home opener vs. the Toronto Blue Jays...

"...I scored the winning run. We were celebrating so excitedly that my teammates fell on top of me. I was the smallest and I was on the bottom of the pile. It was awesome. Then, when I was talking with the American press in the clubhouse after the game, one of my teammates, James Shields, shoved a shaving cream pie in my face. It is ritual that the Devil Rays players like to do after a win."

(Yeah, welcome to the show, rookie!)

"What a great way to end the evening and my first game at Tropicana Field."

How can I not have Aki Fever when he is just thrilled to have a great way to end an evening? He has already exceded my expectations (granted, my expectations were skewed by hype of the likes of Shinjo and Kaz Matsui - maybe I should pay more attention) just by being such a cool cat and now I feel unbelievable safe in his cat-like reflexes at third, his basepath prowess and sweet, sweet bat control skills.

Excuse me now, I'm headed out for some sushi! Aki Fever!!! Wooo!
Go Devil Rays!
Personal Anecdote time ("X" out if you hate stories about people's kids):

Almost a month ago, I was paging through online reports and I was reading about Iwamura and my 3 year old daughter saw a picture and asked "Who is that?" like she always does. I said "Akinori Iwamura" about as fast as I could, because she always tries to repeat their names and I like to tease her at every opportunity. She tried but flubbed it bad, so I said it again and again. It came out jibberish. So finally I reduced it to "Aki" and she went around dancing and chanting "Aki, Aki, Aki". Of course, as Daddy it was very cute to me... (though it could be something from the TV show Dora the Explorer she was doing for all I know)

Last night as I followed the game against the Texas Rangers online, my daughter was in the next room playing. In the second inning, Aki singled in two runs and I let out a "Yeah, Iwamura! That's it!" and my little girl came running into the room dancing and chanting "Aki, Aki, Aki" like she did a couple weeks ago (and I didn't even say his first name)! Sure she's a little OCD with some things (aren't all 3 year olds? Or is it hereditary form the father's side?), but now she's got Aki Fever too! Not bad for a little Suns fan, eh?


Wily Poe Mania said...

Watching it online??? Don’t you know that the baseball package is free for the first week or 2??

My favorite part about AKI besides what you have covered is watching him chat up guys when on base. What on earth did he say to Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock? Do you think he asked where to find some alligator skin cowboy boots?

Either way, as one of the few DRay fans, we welcome your kind words. The bandwagon has all sorts of room for others to jump on. It wasn’t that long ago when the Lightning and Bucs were 2 of the worst franchises in all of professional sports.

If we can find an arm of 3 for this damn pen, this might not be the 10th straight suckie season.


Tits McGee said...

I have Aki fever. His hit streak ended last night, but he had a fantastic at bat to draw a walk and score in the middle of a three run inning against Johan Santana.

Anonymous said...

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