Don Wakamatsu

Seattle Manager Hopes What He Does Highlights Who He Is

The New York Times

Friday, December 26, 2008


As a major league catcher, Don Wakamatsu was a footnote: 18 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1991. But he could say proudly that he played baseball at every level.

Wakamatsu’s true distinction might have been overlooked but for his surname. He was a minority twice over, not just the great-​​grandson of a Japanese dairy farmer, but also one of the few Asian-​​Americans to play in the major leagues.

“My failures put me in a position to be where I am now,” Wakamatsu, 45, said. “One of my goals as a player was to bring recognition to my heritage. Since that didn’t come to fruition, I’m especially fortunate to be where I am now.”

When he was introduced last month as the Seattle Mariners’ manager, the first of Asian descent in the majors, Wakamatsu talked about serving as a metaphorical steppingstone for other Asian-​​Americans in sports.

“I dived into my past, going back to visit my grandma, learning more about my family,” he said by telephone from his home in Texas. “They went through a lot of things. It meant something, and I thought I ought to know more about it since I wasn’t exposed to it much as a child.”

The implications of his heritage first struck him when a government check arrived in the mail in the late 1980s, his father’s share of reparations for the internment of Japanese-​​Americans in the 1940s. Wakamatsu’s father, Leland, was born in the Tule Lake camp in California, just south of the Oregon border.

“I didn’t understand what the check was for,” Wakamatsu said. “You don’t study that stuff in school. My grandparents never talked about it. I remember my dad’s reaction, that it was all too little, too late.”

Wakamatsu’s paternal grandparents, James and Ruth, lost their home when they reported to Tule Lake, the largest camp. Ruth worked in the mess hall; James was a carpenter.

After the war, Wakamatsu’s grandparents and their children moved into a pickers’ cabin, then a converted barn. James started to build a house nearby out of salvaged panels, which he bought off a truck from a man who said they came from the barracks of an internment camp, perhaps even Tule Lake. They live in that house to this day.

Wakamatsu’s grandparents grew pears, apples and cherries to supplement their incomes. James worked in a mill, Ruth in a fruit-​​packing plant, putting in 30 years at their jobs. They can hardly comprehend that their grandson makes his living from a game.

“We’ve worked ever since we were kids,” Ruth, 91, said. “Our whole lives, we were too busy working to think about anything else.”

Over the years, Wakamatsu’s curiosity about his heritage has grown along with his influence in baseball, the sport closest to the hearts of Japanese-​​Americans. From a friendship with the baseball historian Kerry Nakagawa came detailed descriptions of Japanese-​​Americans who played organized baseball in the internment camps. Wakamatsu imagined the game he loved played behind coils of barbed wire, and wondered just how little he knew about his past.

He was an all-​​conference catcher at Arizona State for three seasons, but only after he left did he learn that the university’s first baseball coach, Bill Kajikawa, was Japanese-​​American.

Kajikawa, he learned, served in World War II, as did several of Wakamatsu’s great-​​uncles, with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the mostly Japanese-​​American battalion that was among the war’s most decorated units. Wakamatsu talked often about “those who came before me,” the men in his family, Kajikawa and other forebears like his boyhood idol, Lenn Sakata, perhaps the most successful Asian-​​American baseball player. “I love the game,” Wakamatsu said, “but I’m not in the game just to say, I was a big-​​league manager. I want to see how many players I can help. And if I can be some kind of positive influence for the Japanese and Asian-​​American community in Seattle, well, I have a greater chance of doing that there than in Pittsburgh.”

He added: “I couldn’t have scripted a better place to be. It is coming home in a sense.”

His paternal great-​​grandparents, Eataro and Hisa Wakamatsu, arrived a century ago in Orting, Wash., about 40 miles from Seattle, and settled farther south in Hood River, Ore., where Wakamatsu was born. His Irish-​​American mother, Sandy, a dental assistant, and his father, an ironworker, came from families who farmed the river valley.

Although Wakamatsu grew up mostly in the Oakland suburb of Hayward, Calif., he spent many summers and holidays in Hood River, performing chores in his grandparents’ orchard. He watched his relatives pound mochi, a Japanese rice cake, as they celebrated the new year. He sat wordlessly at the foot of his great-​​grandmother, who spoke no English. She addressed him in Japanese, knowing he could not understand her.

“I can still see her face laughing,” Wakamatsu said. “What a shame, I thought, that I couldn’t speak Japanese.”

Although the number of Asian-​​Americans has grown to about 15 million from roughly 1.5 million in 1960s, when Wakamatsu was born, few have become sports stars. Champion figure skaters like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan are exceptions, along with the tennis player Michael Chang and Apolo Anton Ohno, who has won five Olympic medals in speedskating.

The burden Asian-​​Americans in sports view as their own is being perceived as not fully American. Oakland Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, for instance, said fans and sometimes players assumed he was Japanese.

“It’s entertaining to see how many fans absolutely expect me to be Japanese,” said Suzuki, 25, who grew up in Hawaii. “I just look at them with this blank stare.”

The first two Asian-​​Americans to play in the majors were also from Hawaii. Pitcher Ryan Kurosaki made seven relief appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975. Two years later, Sakata became the second, playing most of his 11 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. Now 54, Sakata is a minor league manager in Japan.

“He was the one guy that I followed,” Wakamatsu said. “For me, there was always that issue of looking for that identity.”

After seven seasons as a coach with American League West teams, Wakamatsu said, he bonded with Suzuki “as soon as I walked in the door” and served as his unofficial mentor when he was Oakland’s bench coach last season.

Suzuki’s parents are Japanese-​​American, but it was Wakamatsu who knew more about their struggles. He is actively involved with the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization, and well read on the history of Japanese-​​Americans in baseball.

“He was the reason I read up so much about Japanese-​​American history,” said Suzuki, believed to be the only Asian-​​American in the majors last season. “We talked more about that than we talked about baseball.”

They immediately felt the weight of the coincidence: two Japanese-​​Americans, teacher and pupil, on the same bench. As far as they could tell, this had never happened.

“The truth is I really wanted him to succeed where I had failed,” Wakamatsu said. “I think it’s quite a coincidence that I ended up being the guy who came along and joined the team at that stage of Kurt’s development. What are the chances?”