The Seattle Mariners are hoping they made a big splash with the hiring of Major League Baseball’s first Asian American manager Don Wakamatsu.
That may be true. The only thing for certain, however, is there will be a lot of attention on the rebuilding franchise and its new field general.
Wakamatsu is a fourth-generation Japanese-American whose father was born in a World War II internment camp. His grandparents were taken from their home in Oregon during the war, and returned to the state when the war ended.
Born in Hood River, Ore. himself, Wakamatsu, who confesses to not knowing much Japanese, spent his entire managerial career in the minor leagues, before moving on to work in the majors.
As the first Asian-American skipper, Wakamatsu will likely draw lots of attention not only in Seattle, which boasts a large Asian-American population, but also from MLB fans in Japan where many Seattle games are broadcast due to the presence of star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki, a Japanese-American whom Wakamatsu worked with last season, drew a lot of attention from Japanese media during the A’s MLB opener in Japan this past season.
As a manager, not to mention Ichiro’s manager, Wakamatsu should also be a popular figure for Japanese journalists, a number of whom are already in America on Ichiro patrol.
His family history will likely lead to more attention than many rookie managers have to deal with.
To their credit, the Mariners quickly and thoroughly detailed the interview process to prove this was a hire based on merit and nothing more.
With so much being made about his ancestry just hours into his reign, Wakamatsu didn’t shy away from the issue during his introductory press conference.
“My parents and grandparents have a long history here in the Northwest, and I’m proud to represent what they went through in their lifetimes,” Wakamatsu said.
“If I can set somewhat of a stepping stone for future Japanese-Americans, and just the equality in baseball, I’m glad to wear that burden.”
His hire comes at a time when Japanese players are becoming mainstays in Major League Baseball.
There were 15 Japanese players on major league rosters last season, headlined by Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro.
Additionally, the Mariners have been mentioned as a possible destination for Japanese free agents such as pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, who compiled a 112-72 record in 10 seasons with the Chunichi Dragons.
There are also more and more Taiwanese and Korean players making the move which prompted many to wonder when the MLB would see its first manager of Asian decent.
Wakamatsu’s hire is also another step in the right direction for the sport and opens the door for more minority candidates to get an opportunity to manage at the game’s highest level.
Because of that, a lot has been written about his heritage and what it means for Seattle and the MLB as a whole.
It’s indeed a great story, but now the pressure’s on Wakamatsu and the Mariners.
The new Seattle boss should be an inspiration to many, but wins and losses will define how he’s remembered.
Wakamatsu comes to Seattle as a highly regarded baseball man. He worked in the Los Angeles Angels organization from 2001-02. He served as bench coach for the Texas Rangers from 2003-06 then took over as the team’s third-base coach during the 2007 season.
Wakamatsu’s last job was with the Oakland A’s as the bench coach under manager Bob Geren.
He’ll join new general manager Jack Zduriencik in trying to build a winner around Ichiro, the franchise cornerstone.
The rookie skipper faces an uphill battle overhauling a team that lost 101 games last season — becoming the first team with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games.
One of the pair’s first jobs will be finding some help for an offensively starved club. It won’t be easy with last year’s team RBI leader Raul Ibanez heading for free agency and a lot of money tied up in contracted players.
“I welcome the challenge here,” Wakamatsu said during his news conference. “To bring a world champion to Seattle and to the fans of the Seattle Mariners. No. 1, it’s our goal as an organization to come together and, as Jack said, to acquire some talent and put a product on the field everybody can be proud of.”
Since former manager Lou Piniella departed in 2002, Seattle is 452-520 and now on its fifth manger.
Adding to the pressure is the fact the Mariners contend in the AL West, a division that features the powerful Angels and an improving Texas Rangers team.
Much will be made of Wakamatsu’s heritage over the long winter. But Wakamatsu’s past won’t mean much when spring rolls around.
From then on, it’s his future the Mariners and their fans will be banking on.
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