Sakata, a former major-league player and now a minor-league manager in Japan, is happy for Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu. But Sakata says he doesn't expect a trend of Japanese-Americans becoming major-league managers.
URAWA, Japan — Don Wakamatsu is a katonk.
At least that’s the way fellow Japanese-American and former Baltimore Oriole Lenn Sakata sees it.
Sakata, who was born and raised in Hawaii, is quick to distinguish himself from the Oregon-born Wakamatsu.
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“The local Japanese [Americans] in Hawaii consider the mainland Japanese [Americans] different,” Sakata says with a grin. “We call them ‘katonks’ because they’re so hardheaded, when they hit their heads, it goes ‘katonk.’ “
Sakata chuckled in amusement as he playfully needled his longtime acquaintance after a recent workout for the minor-league team he manages in Japan’s Eastern League. However, the distinction took on more gravity when he began to put Wakamatsu’s hiring as the U.S. major leagues’ first Japanese-American manager into perspective.
The Mariners rookie manager represents a community that was interned during World War II by its own national government out of uneasiness over its ties to the enemy; Japanese-Americans in Hawaii were not subjected to such treatment. In light of that major difference, Sakata believes the mainland community should be allowed to celebrate an event that underscores how much attitudes in the country have changed.
“They’re probably a lot prouder of the fact that he made it because it’s like vindication,” Sakata explains. “For us, in Hawaii, we think it’s great, but it’s just another thing because we didn’t have to go through what they went through. None of my relatives or family friends were interned. [The internment] was kind of a black eye on America and that’s where Don’s from.”
Beyond wanting to give the mainland Japanese-American community its moment, though, the straight-talking Sakata is skeptical that the hiring of America’s first Japanese-American manager will have any lasting significance.
“It’s great because he’s the first, but this is America,” Sakata says. “Frank Robinson was the first black manager, but after awhile, it was like whoop-de-do because there became many, many more black managers and then there became Latino managers. But with a Japanese-American, there aren’t going to be that many. Don may be the only one, maybe forever. It’s not like they fall out of trees in baseball. There’s only Kurt Suzuki [Hawaiian-born Oakland catcher] that’s playing, right? So if he doesn’t go on to coach, then who knows when the next one will be? Then, [Don] becomes a little footnote in baseball history that’ll be so small eventually the only ones who’ll care are the ones who care to care.”
Make no mistake, though, Sakata is one who cares. He’s immensely proud of the fact that he was the second Japanese-American to wear a major-league uniform after fellow Hawaiian Ryan Kurosaki pitched seven games for St. Louis in 1975.
Sakata, an All-American second baseman at Gonzaga, was drafted by Milwaukee in 1975. He began his major-league career with the Brewers in 1977, but is best remembered for his six seasons in Baltimore.
He was the last guy to play shortstop before iron man Cal Ripken moved there permanently from third base in 1982, just 28 games into his record streak of 2,632 consecutive games played. Sakata was also a member of the Orioles’ 1983 World Series championship team. In fact, the turning point for the Orioles that season well might have been a game in which Sakata was the improbable savior and then the unlikely hero.
The Orioles had been in a tight race all summer long and stood a half-game out of first place as they played Toronto on Aug. 24. The game went into extra innings with skipper Joe Altobelli having managed himself out of catchers, so he shifted Sakata behind the plate from second base. It was the first and only inning Sakata played at catcher in his 11-year major-league career.
Three successive Toronto batters reached base in the 10th inning, each with the idea of running on the novice catcher. They were so brazen with their leads that pitcher Tippy Martinez, not known for a strong move to first, picked each one off. Then, in the bottom of the frame, the fill-in catcher made sure he wouldn’t have to endure another inning out of position by belting a three-run home run, one of just three homers he hit that season.
“The funny thing is,” Sakata recalls, “When you’re thinking about having to catch one more inning, my legs were already shaking because I wasn’t used to squatting and the pressure of the game itself and having to catch. I was just thinking, ‘Let me get a hit so the game is over,’ and then I just happened to hit a hanging slider and it went over the fence. It was unbelievable.”
The victory halted a two-game slide and propelled the Orioles to an eight-game winning streak during which they recaptured first place and never fumbled it the rest of the way.
Around the same time, Sakata remembers hearing about a player at Arizona State University with the surname Wakamatsu. His curiosity was piqued because he didn’t know many Japanese-Americans outside of Hawaii with a Japanese surname, let alone baseball-playing ones. It wasn’t until 1988 when Sakata was a roving instructor for the Oakland A’s that the two met, in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Wakamatsu was playing in the Reds organization.
Although they never worked or played together, their paths crossed several times over the ensuing years, with Sakata maintaining an interest in the mainland katonk with a Japanese surname.
As he watched from afar, two things impressed Sakata about Wakamatsu. First was the quickness with which he ascended to a prominent position on a major-league coaching staff. Texas hired Wakamatsu as bench coach in 2003 after just five years in various minor-league jobs and virtually no major-league playing or coaching experience.
“That spoke volumes about the guy’s ability as a teacher of the game,” Sakata says.
Next were the people Wakamatsu chose for his Mariners coaching staff. Sakata managed Lee Tinsley, Wakamatsu’s hire for first-base coach, in the A’s organization (Southern Oregon, 1988) and coached Ty Van Burkleo, Wakamatsu’s choice for bench coach, while Sakata was with the Angels from 1991-94. Sakata thinks highly of both, saying they share the traits of being hard workers and being able to relate to today’s players.
With the queer smell of chocolate hanging in the air over his team’s practice field wedged into a corner of the parent company’s expansive chocolate factory complex, Sakata, like Wakamatsu, is a rarity; he’s the lone Japanese-American managing a pro team in Japan. Sakata came here before the 2008 season to manage the Chiba Lotte Marines’ farm team, his second stint as a coach or manager in the organization (his first was as a Marines coach from 1995-98).
The 55-year-old says he finds great contentment in working with young players and already has an impressive minor-league track record in America. Between stints with Chiba Lotte, he spent nine years (1999-2007) at various levels of San Francisco’s minor-league system, and in 2007 became the winningest manager in the 68-year history of the California League, where he managed farm clubs first for the A’s and then for the Giants.
Sakata’s two-year commitment to Chiba Lotte expires at the end of the season. Although he’s never coached or managed in America’s big leagues, he has amassed a resume that can’t be overlooked.
His possible return to American baseball next year actually could come with a great twist of irony; the man who points out how the dearth of Japanese-Americans in baseball might relegate Wakamatsu’s reign in Seattle to a mere blip on the community’s screen of accomplishment could be the very guy to nudge the development toward a trend.
Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based journalist who
has spent his career covering baseball in Japan
and America. He frequently covers Ichiro and the Mariners for Japanese media.