ST. PETERSBURG - For the first ten years in their history, some would compare the Rays' overall success to the Abbott and Costello "Who's On First" routine.
It didn't matter who was on first or why anyone was in left because nine last place finishes and one barely out of the cellar made the team so bad it was laughable.
That was then, this is now.
We now know who is on first because Carlos Pena has made it his domain for at least the next three seasons. And on Sunday the "What are we going to do at second?" was also answered.
Sporting a new hairdo, that appeared to be well received by his teammates, and a new interpreter, Tateki "Bori" Uchibori, one-half of the new double-play combination arrived at the Naimoli Complex Sunday.
Fresh off his Grand Marshall duties at the Opening Day parade for the Central Sarasota and Venice Little Leagues, Akinori Iwamura will now concentrate in earnest for his shift from the hot corner to pairing up with newcomer Jason Bartlett at short.
"I spent all of November and December just fielding – no hitting," he said about his preparation over the winter. "I didn’t begin any hitting until January. When I’m out at second, I feel very comfortable. The most difficulty about playing second is the double play – everything is in reverse. That’s what’s been most difficult.”
A Gold Glove-caliber player, he won six in Japan, the 29-year old had the second best fielding percentage by a rookie in big league history in 2007, a mere .003 behind the Cardinals' Don Gutteridge back in 1937. His .975 tops all American League first-year players.
“Third base is much closer to the hitter – second is further away - so it’s difficult to read the ball sometimes,” he said. "Playing second base takes more range, fielding-wise. It could be good for me. It will make me stay in shape.
Akinori Iwamura (AP)
“Last year I was very nervous because I didn’t know anybody. It took a while for me to adjust. This year, I’m much more relaxed. I know the guys, they know me and it’s especially nice when the guys come over to say hi.”
The Tokyo resident wowed fans with his defensive prowess, although he feels like he was a disappointment with the bat.
“I was not very satisfied with my play last year, especially my offense. I got hurt and missed some games. This year I want to play as many games as possible, without any type of break. Specifically, I was not satisfied with my average (.285). I was not satisfied with my home runs (7) or RBIs (34). I know that I can increase my average closer to .300 and that I can add to my home run and RBI totals.”
Iwamura had some experience at second when he signed as a free-agent on December 15, 2006, and it was expected he would eventually wind up on the other side of the diamond to make room for former first-round pick Evan Longoria. That will happen this season regardless if the 22-year old rookie makes the squad out of camp or not.
“I welcome the shift from third to second and I’m very confident that I can make the change. I’m proud of my play at third base, but at the same time if the team needs me at second for team reasons I more than welcome it. It’s a challenge to me anyway. I know I can do it. Wiggy can do it so I can do it.”
The reference was to former Ray Ty Wigginton, who was traded to Houston before the deadline.
Manager Joe Maddon also appreciates Iwamura's willingness to make the move and how he reported to camp.
"He understands he needs to play second in order for us to be a championship team," the skipper said. "I love that. I thought he looked like he was in exceptional shape."
Now on to "I don't know" at third. We should know by March 31st.
TURN ON, TUNE IN: The Rays will broadcast a dozen games this year via their radio partners, 1250 WHNZ and 620 WDAE. There will also be two games telecast by Fox Sports Net Florida. Here is the schedule - ALL GAMES AT 1:05pm UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED:
• March 1 vs Toronto - WHNZ
• March 2 @ Pittsburgh - WHNZ
• March 8 @ NY Yankees - WDAE --- 1:15pm
• March 9 vs. Cincinnati - WHNZ
• March 15 @ Atlanta (ss)- WDAE, or
• March 15 @ NY Yankees (ss) - WDAE --- 1:15pm
• March 16 vs Detroit - WHNZ / FSN
• March 21 @ NY Yankees - WDAE ---- 7:15pm
• March 22 vs. Pittsburgh - WHNZ
• March 23 @ Reds - WHNZ
• March 28 vs Reds - WHNZ / FSN
• March 29 @ Reds - WHNZ
TURN ON, TUNE IN - PART II: The Rays hot stove radio show, "Countdown to Opening Day", goes live from Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill Monday, February, 18, at 7 p.m. on 620-AM WDAE. Ferg's is located at 1320 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, adjacent to Tropicana Field (727-822-4562). Monday's show will feature Rays Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations Gerry Hunsicker and pitcher Matt Garza.
FANFEST: The Rays will hold their annual FanFest from 10am to 5pm on Saturday, Feb., 23, at Tropicana Field. FanFest is a free event with free admission and free parking that includes a team autograph session and panel discussions with various Rays players, alumni, coaches, broadcasters and front office executives throughout the event. Fans of all ages will have the opportunity to take a swing in a big league batting cage, test their fastball in the speed pitch booth, hit a home run in the Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby, take the Home-to-First Speed Challenge, and tour the Rays clubhouse. Artifacts from the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame will be showcased as well as artifacts from the world's largest autographed baseball collection, including balls signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb and many others. There will also be a baseball card show.
GET YER’ TICKETS HERE: Single game tickets will go on sale at FanFest starting at 9:00 a.m. at the Tropicana Field box office, Tampa office, and all TicketMaster locations. Tickets can also be purchased online (www.raysbaseball.com or www.raysbeisbol.com) or by calling 888-FAN-RAYS. Additionally, fans will have the chance to purchase season tickets and mini-plans inside the ballpark throughout the day.
MORE FANFEST INFORMATION:
MLB.com analyst Harold Reynolds will be available for a Q&A at 1 p.m. Former Ray and "The Rookie" Jim Morris will be signing autographs from 10a.m.-2p.m. 19 former major leaguers will be signing autographs throughout the day including former American League Rookies of the Year Gary Peters and Tom Tresh.
Althea Pashman contributed to this report.