ST. PETERSBURG — An hour before Thursday's practice, Rays players started pouring into their clubhouse. Cliff Floyd was whistling. Carlos Pena was slapping everyone on the shoulder.
The crowd of Japanese journalists in the back of the room didn't care. Didn't even turn around. They stood in a tight cluster in front of the second baseman's locker, their cameras focused on an empty chair, waiting for their man to arrive.
They only have eyes for Aki.
"Every day, we write about him. Even when he doesn't play, we have to write something," said Nobuhiro "Nobu" Chira, a reporter for the Nikkan Sports News in Tokyo. He once wrote a story about Aki trading his red bat for a white one. "It is very difficult, trying to find a new way every time."
When Akinori Iwamura started his second season with the Rays this spring, six Tokyo reporters turned out. They would fly between Japan and Tampa Bay, with some making the trip 20 or 30 times.
As the Rays kept winning, the Japanese press pool kept growing. When Tampa Bay made the playoffs, some Japanese journalists decided to stay. Instead of making that 16-hour commute by plane, they moved into residential hotels. One rented a Rocky Point condo — and told his wife and three kids he had no idea when he would be home.
Thursday's practice drew a record: 27 Japanese journalists at Tropicana Field. They greeted each other in their native language, exchanged business cards and bowed.
And when Aki strolled into the clubhouse, his spiky Mohawk glistening, they thrust microphones beneath his chin.
Was he ready for tomorrow's big game? What did he think about his former teammate, Daisuke Matsuzaka, as the Red Sox starting pitcher?
After six minutes, Aki finally was able to escape long enough to tie his shoes.
A missed celebration
Baseball is different in Japan, they say. Sports writers aren't allowed inside the clubhouse. No one mikes the manager in the dugout. And if the team loses, no one feels like talking. So, no news conference.
And when you win a big game, you spray each other with beer. Champagne is too expensive.
"That was a big story, when Aki missed that first champagne celebration in Detroit," said Gaku Tashio, a reporter for the daily Sankei Sports, the third-largest newspaper in Japan. Tashio knew that after the Rays lost to Detroit, most of the players went to a casino to watch the Red Sox game. Aki hates gambling, he said, so he went to his hotel. After that long rain delay, after the Red Sox lost and the Rays realized they had won their division, no one thought to call Aki to tell him to come celebrate.
"He was really disappointed he missed that," Tashio said.
Tashio wrote about Aki's dad when he flew in for the Chicago game. He wrote about Aki changing the way he bats. In Japan, he said, Aki was a power hitter who slammed 44 home runs one season. But after Maddon put him at the top of the Rays' batting order, he had to learn to draw more pitches, hit for a base, take walks.
"Now that he's (in the) post-season," Tashio said, "he's the biggest thing in our paper. He's sick now. He has a cold. That's a huge story for us."
Journalists love Aki
During batting practice Thursday, the Japanese journalists talked in small groups.
But when Aki strode to the plate, every pen was poised, every long lens focused. And when he slammed one into the stands behind centerfield, two dozen cameras clicked.
"That's our highlight," said Naoto Suzuki, shooting for NHK Japan TV. "Even if he grounds out in a game, that's a replay."
Japan's favorite major league ballplayer is Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki. But the journalists all love Aki best.
"Ichiro doesn't talk to us. He doesn't want the distraction. So we respect that," Suzuki said. "But Aki is very friendly, so it's easy to cover him."
After a game, some journalists go out together for Japanese food. Some run into each other at restaurants. A few go to Hooters.
Their deadlines are 5 or 6 a.m. Florida time — Japan is 14 hours ahead. About 2 a.m., they start scanning American sports coverage. If Aki made headlines here, that's huge news over there.
Demands of the media
A half-hour after Thursday's practice, Rays players started pouring out of their clubhouse. They were hungry, ready to eat and go home. So was Aki.
But his entourage was waiting.
When he walked into the hall, wearing a black T-shirt and leather sandals, a sea of Japanese journalists parted. Yes, he answered in Japanese, he was ready to face Matsuzaka. Yes, he was anxious yesterday. But today he was ready.
Twenty minutes after all the other players had left, Aki was finally able to head out of Tropicana Field. A dozen cameras recorded each flap of his flip-flops.