Let it be known that Don Wakamatsu — of the managing Wakamatsus — has the all-important endorsement of Mr. Mariner. "Don is just solid...
Let it be known that Don Wakamatsu — of the managing Wakamatsus — has the all-important endorsement of Mr. Mariner.
“Don is just solid. That’s the word that comes to mind. It always has been, even as a young guy,” said Alvin Davis.
Word began to filter out Tuesday that the Mariners had tapped Wakamatsu as their new manager, a decision that will become official today.
Wakamatsu might be a mystery to most of the team’s fans (as were five of his rivals for the job, all but the ever-cuddly Joey Cora). But in Riverside, Calif., the Mariners’ first breakout star has warm memories of his former college teammate at Arizona State in 1982.
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“Wak was real, real even-keeled, even-tempered, but he was passionate and intense. Solid,” Davis said. “He’s likable and personable, in a genuine sense.
“Wak and I have the type of relationship where we have genuine care for one another, even though we don’t get to spend that much time together any more. I have tons of respect for him.”
Respect is one of the words that will no doubt be thrown out at the news conference introducing Wakamatsu as the successor to the successor to the successor to the successor to the successor of Lou Piniella — which, let’s be honest here, is the manager to whom all Mariners managers will eventually be compared.
Also thrown around today will be words like “preparation,” “teacher,” “discipline” and “poise.”
Of course, so will “unproven,” “inexperienced,” and “Who the heck is HE?”
Here’s who Wilbur Donald Wakamatsu is: A guy who toiled seven years as a catcher in the minors before finally making his major-league debut for the White Sox in 1991. And then promptly committed two passed balls in his first game in The Show.
Of course, the pitcher was Charlie Hough, the famed knuckleballer, who had been so impressed with Wakamatsu in spring training that he requested him as his personal catcher when Ron Karkovice got hurt.
“I walked into the clubhouse and they threw a knuckleball mitt at me and said, “It’s you,” Wakamatsu told Sports Illustrated shortly after his debut. “Before the game, I watched [Cleveland knuckleballer] Tom Candiotti on TV. The first pitch I saw hit [Indians catcher] Joel Skinner right in the mask. He never got his mitt on it. I said, ‘I’m going home.’ “
But Wakamatsu never went home. He persevered, just as his grandparents had persevered in the Tule Lake internment camp during World War II. Wakamatsu has recently reached out to his grandparents — living in Hood River, Ore. — to learn all he could about their ordeal.
“I asked them about the camps and living in the barracks,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle last year. “They said, ‘This house is made of barracks.’ I said, ‘What?’ When they were let out of the camp, former inmates were allowed to buy the buildings, so my grandparents bought two, put them together and added windows.
“How ironic — they had 48 hours to relocate, they were imprisoned for years and then they chose to live the rest of their lives in the same buildings. And they’d never talked about it before. I’ve only heard my grandparents speak a couple of sentences in Japanese in my life because they didn’t want to speak it when they got out of camp.”
The son of a third-generation Japanese-American father who was born in the Tule Lake camp and an Irish-American mother, “I have mochi on one side and potatoes on the other,” Wakamatsu quipped last month to the Nichi Bei Times.
He grew up in the Oakland suburb of Hayward in the Bay Area, a high-school football (he was a linebacker) and baseball teammate of Jack Del Rio, now coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Wakamatsu also played basketball and was part of nine consecutive league championship teams at Hayward High, including the school’s last unbeaten football team.
At Arizona State, Alvin Davis wasn’t Wakamatsu’s only notable teammate during the glory days of Sun Devils baseball under legendary coach Jim Brock. He also played with future major-leaguers Oddibe McDowell, Mike Devereaux, Kevin Romine, Doug Henry — and an outfielder named Barry Bonds.
“It was one of those love-hate things,” Wakamatsu told The Chronicle. “I loved watching the things he [Bonds] could do and I hated lockering next to him. That was more jealousy about what he could do and how easily he handled the pressure. He was so gifted so early.”
But Wakamatsu was gifted in different areas. His playing career was more Crash Davis than Barry Bonds; those 18 games in ’91 with the White Sox as Hough’s caddie were all he had to show for a 12-year pro career.
But in its twilight, while a 30-something in Tacoma, of all places, in the Mariners’ organization, he found his calling while mentoring a young Mariners catcher named Jason Varitek.
It was as a coach and manager that Wakamatsu displayed the big-league tools that were missing as a catcher. Buck Showalter was so impressed with how he handled himself as a young manager in the Diamondbacks system that he asked Wakamatsu to be his bench coach with the Rangers. And gave him expansive responsibilities, the ultimate compliment from a control freak like Showalter.
Even though he is now the man in charge in Seattle, Wakamatsu has teaching in his blood. Here’s what he once said about the joys of imparting knowledge:
“Coaching is about getting goose bumps after you work with a guy and he hits a home run or throws a good pitch or makes a good play. You have an internal feeling you can’t describe.”
Mariners fans hope Wakamatsu will experience many such rushes of joy as he tries to untangle the Mariners’ future.
In spring training, and in visits to ballparks over the years, Alvin Davis has observed his old teammate working with players.
“You can tell when a player respects a coach — body language, eye contact, responsiveness,” Davis said. “I saw that every time with Don. I feel like Wak built upon the person he is. It’s not a mistake or accident he’s in the position he is.”
Solid. That’s a good start for a team that has been an oozing, gooey mess for far too long.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com