By Gregg Bell
The Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — Don Wakamatsu is proud to be the first Asian American manager in Major League Baseball history. He’s also keenly aware of what his grandparents endured generations before he took over the Seattle Mariners.
During World War II, the United States government moved his Japanese ancestors across the country from one internment camp to another. Wakamatsu’s father, an iron worker, was born in one.
“I’m proud to represent some of what they went through in their lifetime,” Wakamatsu said. “If I can set a future stepping stone for Japanese Americans and just the equality in baseball, I’m glad to bear that torch.”
A fourth-generation Japanese American, the former Oakland Athletics bench coach was introduced on Nov. 19 as the new manager of the Mariners.
The team has close ties to Japan, from Hiroshi Yamauchi, its titular head and Japanese billionaire, and through All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the franchise cornerstone.
James Wakamatsu, 93, and wife Ruth, 91, were hardworking, modest-living fruit growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley before the United States rounded up the Japanese living in this country during the war.
The elder Wakamatsus were first sent to live in an internment camp set up in the infield of a horse-racing track in Portland. Then they were moved to Tule Lake, Calif., to Jerome, Ark., and to the Chicago area.
When the war ended, they resettled in Hood River, Ore. Wakamatsu’s parents settled there, too — his mother is Irish-American — and he was born there.
“When they got out, they were offered the barracks to buy. They ended up shipping it to Hood River,” he said of his grandparents. “As a child, I had no idea I was living in the barracks they were interned in. It blew me away.”
James and Ruth still live in that former part of an internment barracks in Hood River. They were thrilled when their grandson beat six other candidates to become a major league manager for the first time.
“They are proud of me,” Wakamatsu said, smiling.
Wakamatsu’s wife, Laura, sat to his left during a news conference. She and their three children are proud of him, too. Just after being introduced, Wakamatsu held up a sign 10-year-old daughter Jadyn made to celebrate Dad’s big day.
“KNOCK ‘EM DEAD! From: Sis,” the sign read in blue and red crayon.
“This might be our theme for the year,” Wakamatsu said.
“I told him, ‘It better be,’” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said, chuckling.
This 45-year-old relative unknown spent five years as a bench coach and third-base coach in Texas, then one year as bench coach for the A’s before Seattle called. He has never managed above Double-A.
His task: reverse the culture and performance of a team that last season became the first to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll.
“This is the crown jewel of what we’ve tried to do,” Zduriencik said, pointing to Wakamatsu and referring to his overall remake of the Mariners’ scouting and player-evaluation departments in the last month.
Wakamatsu was raised in Hayward, Calif. after moving out of that house which had been an internment barrack. He knows only a little Japanese, though it has improved lately with his daughter helping him with Berlitz courses. He hopes to learn the language better to relate closely with Suzuki and to improve Mariners’ catcher Kenji Johjima, who struggled so much last season that he was benched months after signing a $24 million, three-year contract extension.
When asked what expectations should be in Seattle after last season ended as the Mariners’ worst since 1983, Wakamatsu said, “I’m not going to sit up here (and) promise the moon. Obviously, someone promised the moon last year and it didn’t work out.
“I think there’s talent. I think there’s youth … I think there’s starting pitching that’s pretty deep, a pretty good closer.
“Just with osmosis, we ought to be better than we were last year.” ♦