Japanese Baseball: Kenichi Iwamoto Interview
In the past decade and a half, Kenichi Iwamoto has been a student, an athletics trainer, a mascot, a singer, a ticket seller, a statistician and an interpreter.
It's an impressive collection of hats for a guy who confesses to having just a single fixation in life: baseball.
The 35-year-old recently wrapped up his latest stint as translator for former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters' manager Trey Hillman, who inked a deal to manage the Kansas City Royals from next season.
While Iwamoto says he is unclear what role he might find himself in next, it's all but guaranteed to be tied to baseball. After all, Iwamoto has done everything to stay close to the game he loves, from entertaining fans with ditties in between innings to learning English, his bread-and-butter skill since becoming the word cruncher for Tsuyoshi Shinjo when the now-retired outfielder played for the New York Mets in 2001.
A serious leg injury forced Iwamoto out of the game as a player in junior high school, but he continues to be so enamored with baseball he claims he doesn't even have any hobbies that aren't related to the sport. "My hobbies are all about baseball. If I have spare time I go watch high school baseball games, watch baseball on TV or read about baseball," Iwamoto says.
Cut this man with a knife and he'd likely bleed pine tar. The Hokkaido native has come a long way since first venturing to the United States 16 years ago to pursue his dream of becoming an athletics trainer, a profession he says he chose solely to be a part of a baseball team.
Now making a living using English, Iwamoto still recalls a time when he couldn't understand "a thing, zero" during the first class he attended stateside. He eventually finished last in a class of 500 on the midterm exam.
"It was multiple choice too, and I scored something like 32 percent. It's a big memory for me," he says.
But as with seemingly everything he puts his mind to, Iwamoto quickly overcame the language barrier and earned his degree from Oregon State University, only to find an equally daunting task still ahead of him: the job hunt. One of the few opportunities that presented itself at an MLB club was a position for a bilingual intern with the Houston Astros.
Unfortunately for Iwamoto, when he showed up for the interview he was told the Astros needed a Spanish speaker for all their Venezuelan and Dominican players. Disappointed but not defeated, Iwamoto told the athletics training coordinator that he was willing to work for free, "as long as they provided me with one meal a day and a place on the roof to sleep."
The Astros wound up giving the job to another candidate, but when he eventually turned the job down, Iwamoto got the call and never looked back.
"In rookie ball we sometimes had to go to work at 5 a.m. and weren't finished until the evening, after which I sometimes went to A ball, and I wasn't finished until midnight sometimes. But it was really fun, and I learned a lot, met some great people," he says. One of those great people was Jim Duquette, then a minor league director with the Astros and currently vice president of the Baltimore Orioles.
It was Iwamoto's relationship with Duquette, who moved to the Mets in 1998, that landed him his own job in New York. There the hard-working Iwamoto asked to be given a chance to learn as much about the baseball operations as possible, and soon found himself doing everything aside from cleaning the toilets.
"I was in A ball at the time in the front office selling tickets and game cards, being a mascot during the games, and I sang the Kit Kat song in front of the audience--I did many things. But the team told me Shinjo was coming and that I could be the interpreter. I said I would, but that I'd also like to continue learning more about the baseball operations."
While interpreting was never on Iwamoto's career radar growing up--"I never thought I would become involved in English in any way"--he said he really enjoyed his time translating for Shinjo and Hillman.
"The best thing about translating is the people you meet. I've learned a lot from their conversations. I see each person's way of approaching people, their way of talking, the styles of conversation," says Iwamoto, who added that he learned to be less temperamental from Hillman.
"For some reason I used to be a short-tempered guy, I got excited too much sometimes and depressed too much sometimes but after five years with Trey I believe I am more calm now - I think because Trey really knows how to connect with people and I learned from him."
The newly calm, cool and collected Iwamoto may finally be through with translating but he's certainly not done with baseball.
Keep your eyes peeled for him at a ballpark near you next season. He could be selling popcorn, calling plays down the third base line or making trades in the front office.
For Iwamoto, the opportunities in baseball are as endless as his enthusiasm for the game.