I was nervous that this YouTube clip of a post-game interview with shortstop Munenori Kawasaki would be just an opportunity to make fun of the onetime Japanese baseball star, but I didn’t need to worry. His likable enthusiasm came through in spite of his struggles with English, and his team’s appreciation for the player came through loud and clear when one player stepped aside to allow him to be interviewed, and two others doused him as if they’d just won the World Series.
It wasn’t the championship: Kawasaki had just helped his Toronto Blue Jays win a game in the 9th inning against the Baltimore Orioles by hitting a walk-off double. Although (or maybe because) he had started the season in the Blue Jays’ minor league club (he had been released after one season with the Seattle Mariners).
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. Continue reading →