tampabay.com

A world of change

By JOHN BARRY
Published May 21, 2007


She was a pretty girl from a fishing village on the western edge of Japan. He was a martial arts guy, or so she thought when they met. He liked that about her. He didn't want her to know he was one of Japan's baseball idols. - Now Misaki and Akinori Iwamura are on the other side of the Earth, settling into a new townhome in St. Petersburg, the living room bigger than their whole apartment in Japan. They have a toy poodle named Nuts. Misaki is pregnant with their first child, a boy. Akinori is a millionaire star third baseman for the Devil Rays. - Baby's coming July 4.

The move, the money, the new home, the babble of English everywhere, all of it has happened so fast that Akinori and Misaki talk about it with a kind of wonder. Or maybe more humor than wonder. There's a lot of laughter in the Iwamura house. It has been so crazy it's funny - like the baby stroller they bought last week at a mall in Orlando.

It cost $1,000.

Akinori can't get over that. He's new at being an American millionaire. For that much money, the thing should come with a nanny and an air conditioner.

"Unbelievable," he says. "I told Masi his translator I bought a stroller for $1,000. He said he bought a car for $500."

In February, Akinori traded five-time All-Star stature in Japan, where he played third base for the Yakult Swallows, for a contract with the uncelebrated Devil Rays. The Rays paid Akinori $7.7-million to stick around for three years. He showed up for work on his 28th birthday.

Misaki, 29, followed in March. When she got here, five months pregnant, he drove her up to a $995,000 townhome in the Carillon neighborhood of St. Petersburg.

"His present to me," she says solemnly.

* * *

The Iwamuras have his and her translators. They're sharing Misaki's as they sit together on the sofa, talking about the fast madness that's happened to them.

He's small for a big-leaguer: 5 feet 9, 175 pounds. She comes just to his shoulder. All that hypnotic intensity he shows at the plate, that kinetic violence he shows at third base, is absent. They sit close. They look very happily married. Three years ago, he saw her out with friends and asked one of them to bring her to a restaurant so he could meet her. "It was love at first sight."

Misaki knew nothing about him. With those muscles, he must be a martial arts fighter, she figured. He hadn't said anything about baseball. Her two brothers flipped when she told them a boy named Akinori Iwamura had asked her out. Against their vociferous recommendations, she played hard to get.

"He asked many times before I said yes."

Japanese courtship protocol is very clear: When a boy wants to ask a girl to marry he must put his best clothes on and come to the girl's house to get permission from the father.

"He dressed formally and came to the house," Misaki says. "But my father was very shy. They never did talk about a marriage."

Instead, the fact that Akinori had come in his best clothes and presented himself to her father signaled an unspoken agreement.

"Everyone understood we were getting married."

Two wedding celebrations were held: one in Tokyo, the other in her village. Five-hundred people came.

At each of the celebrations, Misaki wore a wedding gown, two kimonos and a cocktail dress. "I changed into eight different dresses."

* * *

Now they're shopping for baby clothes. Akinori has been at home a lot the last couple of weeks after straining an oblique muscle while hitting a double against the Yankees. He was batting .339 at the time, ninth in the American League. Misaki was at the game when he got hurt. "I didn't notice," she says. They both explode in giggles.

They know hardly any other Japanese who don't work in restaurants. They don't know any other expectant parents. Akinori says he's becoming friends with fellow slugger Ty Wigginton, who's filling in for him at third base.

Wigginton has two boys. He delivered one of them himself last December, when his wife went into sudden labor while standing in the clothes closet of their North Carolina home. In about two minutes, Wigginton had the baby in his hands. His clutch catch didn't land him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but he ended up on the cover of a parenting magazine.

The Iwamuras keep it on their coffee table.

Masaki's due date is July 4. She wasn't aware that's a holiday.

"There's going to be fireworks," she's told.

"What time?" she asks.

"About 9 o'clock."

"Okay."

"Don't be late."

Misaki's eyes widen. She looks at Akinori.

"Okay."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.