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After a rollercoaster year, Iwakuma looks to settle in

By Shannon Drayer

When Hisashi Iwakuma put on his Mariners jersey for the first time we saw what we have seen from many who took the podium in similar situations. We saw the smile, we saw the excitement. With Iwakuma, we perhaps saw a little relief as well.

Hisashi Iwakuma signed a one-year deal with the Mariners earlier this month.

Last year was filled with unimaginable highs and lows for Iwakuma. From the surprise that he would be returning to Japan after the Oakland A’s failed to sign him to a contract, to the heartbreak and tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the town where his team played, to the joy of the birth of his third child and finally to the night he sat down for a meal with Jack Zduriencik and felt wanted, rollercoaster does not begin to describe the past 12 months.

“It was obviously a crazy year,” he said after a day of house hunting in the Seattle area. “We had the earthquake and the flood which we can never forget. A different year with a lot of things happening all at once. But with that, at the end of the day, I got to sign with the Mariners so it is a new challenge for me. I look forward to the new challenge.”

We will see how much of a challenge adapting to the big leagues is in the coming months. No matter how much of a challenge it turns out to be, Iwakuma will not lose sight of why he plays the game. For him, it is about the fun.

“Baseball has always been good to me and I have always had fun,” said Iwakuma, who was drawn to the sport because of his father.

“I naturally got to see baseball on TV and it happened to be with my father and that is how I got into baseball,” he said. “My father loved baseball.”

He decided at an early age that he wanted to pitch. His baseball hero at the time was Hisanobu Watanabe, the star pitcher in the late ’80 for the Seibu Lions who was known for his big-game pitching.

Wantanabe cover
As a kid, Iwakuma idolized Japanese pitcher Hisanobu Watanabe. (AP)

“What I remember is he was a very dynamic pitcher, strong powerful pitcher and that is what I looked up to at that time,” said Iwakuma.

He caught the eye of scouts pitching in tournaments his senior year in high school. It was then that he began to think that he could pitch professionally. He was drafted in 1999 and made his professional debut May 29, 2001. At the time he was a very different pitcher.

“With my kind of stuff, early on I threw hard but learned pitching is about throwing inside, outside, up and down,” he said. “You learn that it is about the pitch count, keeping it low so you can go long innings. It is the game of pitching. That is the beauty of pitching.”

Iwakuma throws the “shuuto,” which basically is a two-seam fastball or sinker as he sees it. It is at the top of his repertoire, his bread and butter pitch.

“The sinker is my pitch. Not many people said I threw a sinker but in my feelings I have always had that imagery of that fastball sink,” he said while motioning the downward action. “Let the hitters swing, roll over and hit it to (Brendan) Ryan.”

Iwakuma met and spent some time with Ryan at Fanfest this weekend. In Ryan he found a teammate that in his words was “very outgoing, energetic, enthusiastic and fun.” Again, the fun. Something that his important to him in his baseball life and something that understandably was missing last season in Japan.

Iwakuma’s Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, play their home games in the coastal city of Sendai, which was ravaged by the tsunami that followed the earthquake that hit northeastern Japan last March. Iwakuma was with the team 400 miles away in Akashi when the earthquake hit. The start of the Japanese baseball the season was pushed back three weeks and it was Iwakuma who took the ball on the delayed Opening Night.

“It was big for myself, for my team,” he said of the experience. “I felt very responsible for my city, because we gather up together to win a ballgame for the city. As a team that is all we can do. As a baseball player, too. We are out there to play, give it our all and win for our city. To keep our city going and to give each other smiles and that is all we had in mind.”

The experience has changed how he looked at his job.

“It was a different feeling,” he said. “It was special after the tragedy. Until then you played for the fans and you want to give them their dreams. One day I want to be like him or I want to play for the Rakuten Eagles, but after the tragedy it is all about winning for the city, to give back.”

Now he is in a new city with a new team and his goal is to help the Mariners. He said as much, in English, in his opening statement to the press this weekend.

“Hi, my name Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners. I am here to help the team,” he said carefully.

For now the rollercoaster continues as he looks for a home for his family in Seattle. His wife and three kids, the youngest just four months old, are with him now. Uprooting their lives and moving to a strange land is hardly easy for a family, but they look forward to the challenge.

“We have to fight as a team back at home, too,” he answered when asked what he hoped his family would get out of the experience. “We have to get used to the customs, the culture, the language, the city, the environment and I have to support my wife, too, as well in raising three kids. That is our task.”

His task on the field begins in less than two weeks.

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