Former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, now a bench coach with Toronto, casts no blame for his departure last season and says he will be rooting for the Mariners.
DUNEDIN, Fla. — The famous Don Wakamatsu “belief system” needed some boosting last fall.
After a dream rookie campaign as Mariners’ skipper in 2009, in which he engineered a 24-game improvement, Wakamatsu endured the season from hell in 2010. Or, at least, four months of that hellish campaign in which tepid bats and a tense clubhouse resulted in his unceremonious firing on Aug. 9.
The boost came when the season ended, and Wakamatsu’s phone started ringing. The Brewers, Mets and Blue Jays wanted to interview him for their managerial vacancy. So did the Cubs, but before doing so, opted to make interim Mike Quade their full-time manager. Several other teams, including the Orioles with their new manager Buck Showalter, under whom Wakamatsu had worked before, wooed him to be their bench coach.
In the end, Wakamatsu didn’t land a manager’s job. Toronto bypassed Wakamatsu to hire former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, but the Blue Jays were so impressed with Wakamatsu they pursued him hard to be Farrell’s bench coach. And Wakamatsu was so impressed with what he had seen and heard from the Jays organization that he took it, joining the fray in the rugged AL East.
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“I really like what’s going on here,” Wakamatsu said Thursday after the Blue Jays workout. “We’ve got a lot of good players, young players, and a farm system they’re starting to build.”
Wakamatsu admitted that it was nice to be wanted, after the messiness of his Seattle departure.
“Yeah, I think a guy like me needs that after going through that (with the Mariners),” he said. “It’s healthy, and you’re thankful, because you take a hit on the confidence a little bit. You go to Seattle trying to accomplish things, and that doesn’t work out. I think to have that many people and organizations interested right away, it makes you feel like, hey, I’m not as bad, maybe, as it ended up.”
Wakamatsu doesn’t have much interest in reflecting on what went wrong last year, and absolutely no interest in casting blame. Some have pinpointed the Ken Griffey Jr. “Sleepgate” incident the start of Wakamatsu’s undoing, while others believe general manager Jack Zduriencik made him the scapegoat for his own miscalculations in team building. Wakamatsu is taking the high road.
“I’m going to cherish the opportunity I got there,” he said. “I think you learn things along the way. Certain things, no matter how good you are, it still comes down to wins and losses and accountability … I don’t sit here and dwell on what happened in the past.
“I’m sitting here in a different uniform, in a good place. I wish the organization well, and I wish my new organization well.”
Ask him if he feels like a scapegoat, and Wakamatsu said, “Again, I think it’s unhealthy to sit and say, ‘Woe is me,’ or whatever. I look at it, how many people get that opportunity? What I remember of Seattle, and I’ll always remember of Seattle, is the fans coming out and the fans being supportive.
“Hey, they’re owed winning. Whether it’s me or someone else, that’s irrelevant. How can anyone be bitter? I mean, really — how can you be bitter, one of the 30 in the world to get an opportunity to manage a club? That’s the way I look at it. I really do. It’s not worth the energy or the time to dwell on something that maybe didn’t go the way you wanted it. So get back on the horse and try hopefully to do it better the second time.”
Of the Griffey situation, Wakamatsu will say only, “I still think it comes down to wins and losses. It’s about production on the field. You can talk about off field, you can talk about things happening here. You’ve got to win games. We didn’t win games, and that’s the extent of it.
“I’m happy he’s able to go back (as a special adviser). He built that franchise. He put them on the map. The fans love him there. For him to go back and do some of the stuff he’s going to do, I think it’s good. It’s healthy for the organization.”
The two haven’t talked since Griffey walked away in June, but Wakamatsu said he hopes they can eventually reconnect.
“It’s a difficult situation when a player of that magnitude has to step away from the game,” he said. “I’d love to talk to him. I wish him well.”
Spending part of the baseball season at home for the first time in more than 20 years had its bright spots, Wakamatsu said. He got to watch his two sons play sports, and traveled to Japan. He worked at some baseball camps and clinics, whetting his juices to the teaching end of baseball that will be more pronounced in his new job. He will be working closely with Toronto’s catchers.
Wakamatsu wants to manage again, though he says he’s in “no hurry” to do so. When it happens, Wakamatsu believes he will have learned some valuable lessons from his Seattle days, with added wisdom from his Toronto tenure.
“I’m just real fortunate to be around good people and smart people, and it’s only going to help you,” he said. “I feel I’m young enough. To have the opportunity to say I already managed in the big leagues, and to have some success, and some failure that you learn from. There’s a lot of good managers that managed in the day, and their first go-round didn’t go so well. I just try to put everything in perspective. At this point, I don’t know if I could have picked a better spot to come to.”
Wakamatsu raves about Toronto general manager Alex Anthropoulos, assistant GM Tony LaCava and the rest of the staff. He expects to forge a smooth working relationship with Farrell. The former Red Sox pitching coach has never managed before, so he’ll lean on Wakamatsu more than perhaps a veteran like Showalter would have.
“Now you get the pitching side of it and the catching side of it as a tandem,” he said. “It’s fun to be of use and some value to someone, and be used. Sometimes that bench coach is a difficult position if you’re with an established manager, because he does so much. He needs you for other things, but not so much for this. This is where I think it was healthy where I could come in and be the most value to somebody.”
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to follow the Mariners from afar.
“I’m invested in players,” he said. “I’ll watch. I’m so happy with the Gold Gloves and the Cy Youngs, Ichi and those guys. I’ll continue to pull for those guys, absolutely.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org