Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Don Wakamatsu makes history as first Asian American Major League Baseball coach
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Don Wakamatsu makes history as first Asian American Major League Baseball coach

Don Wakamatsu, a yonsei, is the first Asian American manager in Major League Baseball.

A New York Times profile of Don Wakamatsu (thanks to reader Juan Lozano for pointing it out), the Japanese American named by the Seattle Mariners to manage the struggling team, reminded me that I’d been meaning to write about him since Wakamatsu’s hiring was announced in November.

It’s an historic signing because for the hype that Japanese (and other Asian) ball players have received from the media since Hideo Nomo arrived as a pitcher for the Dodgers in 1995, there have been few and mostly unheralded Japanese American players in MLB. (By the way, Nomo wasn’t the first Japanese player — Masanori Murakami pitched in 1964 and ’65 for the San Francisco Giants.) And, there has never been an Asian American manager of a Major League team.

It’s nice to read stories about Wakamatsu, who acknowledges his role as a pioneering Asian American. He grew up with an awareness of his heritage — his father is Sansei and his mother is Irish American, so he’s a Yonsei, or fourth-generation, Hapa. He played in Japanese American sports leagues as a kid, and is a member of the Japanese American Citizens League.

His grandparents were interned at Tule Lake during World War II, and his father was born in camp. His grandparents even bought pieces of their former barracks and used them to build their home in Hood River, Oregon after the war, and they still live in the house.

Wakamatsu was born in Oregon but raised in the Bay Area suburb of Hayward. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1985 as a catcher, and also played for the Chicago White Sox. He’s held various coaching positions for the Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks and others. He was bench coach for the Oakland As last season when he was picked to helm the Mariners.

Wakamatsu will be managing one of the superstars of Japanese import players, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who single-handedly energized the Mariners’ fan base when he signed with the team in 2001 (especially with Japanese fans), and opened the door to the current wave of players crossing the Pacific.

It’s well-known that Japanese are crazy about baseball — it’s their national sport. You can read all about Japanese players in the Bigs at my friend Daigo Fujiwara’s excellent site, Japanese Baseball Players.

But that love for the game also extended to Japanese Americans, both before and during incarceration in internment camps. An entertaining 2006 independent film, “American Pastime,” tells the story of how baseball helped JAs stick together in the Topaz camp in Utah.

Like any American kid, I played Little Baseball baseball when I was a kid in northern Virginia during the 1960s. I was terrible, because I was puny and couldn’t hit. I was scared of the ball and stood out in the outfield praying that no one would hit the thing my way.

I had one advantage, though: I was so short I was difficult to pitch to, and if I wasn’t stupid and swinging wildly at pitches, I could usually take a walk.

I haven’t followed the Major Leagues closely since those days, but I’m glad to see Japanese, Korean and even Chinese players getting their shot in Major League Baseball.

When I was a kid, there were no Asian faces (with two-season exception of Murakami in ’64 and ’65) I could see and be inspired by. Not that I had the talent to pursue baseball seriously, but if there were an Asian American kid out there who was good enough, there was no role model to look up to.

First, African Americans broke the color barrier, then Hispanic players proved their worth. The next generation of imported players is underway.

Now, I hope Asian faces will become commonplace instead of unusual, and that the current wave will lead to more Asian Americans entering the sport.

Go, Mariners!