Don Wakamatsu is trying to save the farm and feed the world
By Levi Weaver Jul 3, 2018
Don Wakamatsu is trying to save the world.
In the ballroom of the Hilton hotel in Southlake, Texas, the Rangers’ bench coach steps to the microphone and addresses a room of coaches, players, front office executives, and about a hundred attendees. On either side of the room, pop-up stations provide Caribbean, sushi, and traditional ballpark fare (among others), as they set a fitting tone for the night’s primary focus: food.
“Being in professional baseball a long time, we’ve been afforded a lot of good things,” Wakamatsu says. “Being in the World Series, traveling the country, seeing and meeting a lot of people. And you get to the point in your coaching career when you go ‘…is that enough?'”
It’s not a coincidence that when Don Wakamatsu decided to do more, he chose food. On his father’s side, his grandparents, James and Ruth Wakamatsu—who were also put into internment camps during World War II for simply being Japanese—were farmers by trade. So, too, were his grandparents on the Collins side of the family.
“I grew up spending time on the farm until I got into organized baseball,” Wakamatsu says. “I went up there this past winter, and the farm has kind of gone downhill; my Japanese grandparents passed away, and we lost that farm, and now my grandmother on my mother’s side is approaching 90, and the farm’s kind of…” he pauses for a moment. “My parents are kind of running it right now, but they’re in their seventies, so I started thinking about what we need to do with the farm… there’s a lot of fruit going to waste. So I started researching a little bit (…) In the next ten years, 50% of the farms in the United States are probably going to stop farming.”
Meanwhile, as Don worked with the various charities in and around baseball, he began to notice something: many of the MLB initiatives, while helping kids stay in school, deal with specific health concerns, or give them opportunities to be involved in athletics, weren’t helping kids who live in food-insecure households—homes that can’t access enough food to stay healthy.
“In Texas alone, there are 1.9 million kids that are food insecure, to different degrees,” Wakamatsu says. “In Dallas alone, there are probably 500,000. People don’t know about that, because there are a lot of subsidies for kids when they’re in school, but not during the summertime.”
Meanwhile, Wakamatsu says, the big-league clubhouses he inhabited were perpetually inundated with new healthy food products; protein shakes, snacks, and the like.
When you list the various elements to the story, it seems amazing that no one has been able to tie these loose ends together yet.
farms losing profitability, letting fruit fall to the ground rather than harvesting it, because of the surge in industrial agriculture
inner-city kids living in food-insecure households
baseball charities helping kids stay in school and participate in athletics, but not able to provide them with food in the summer months when they’re not in school
potential sponsors already sending foodstuffs to big-league clubhouses
You can’t expect baseball to solve a farming crisis and feed inner-city kids all in one go, but Wakamatsu says that’s the aim of WakWay. While he’s at it, he’s actively seeking out the younger guys in the clubhouse—those without charities or foundations of their own—to get involved.
“The bigger players have their own foundations,” he says. “But the rest of them, the agents don’t want to have to organize all that for them, so they don’t ever ask players. And the teams don’t have the resources to do it, so I started the foundation to be able to approach players, and ask them: what are you really passionate about? It is your duty, it’s your responsibility, you’ve been given a gift to play here, and it’s your responsibility to use that platform for good.”
Some of the silent auction items at the First Base Bash
And so, on a Sunday night in July, Wakamatsu and others gather together and hold a silent auction, an informative video plays, and country music star Casey Dohahew plays for the crowd.
His effort is far from the only charity effort that the Texas Rangers and their players are engaged in. In additions to the players and coaches listed on the official site, there’s also Jake Diekman, whose Gut it Out foundation is aimed at curing ulcerative colitis. Cole Hamels and his wife donated a $9m house to charity late last year. The Texas Rangers Youth Academy at Mercy Street has tirelessly worked to provide a place for inner-city kids to play sports. And MLB has a STEM program, from which they are hoping to hire inner-city graduates into big-league jobs, addressing their diversity issue at a grassroots level.
Even the Rangers’ media corps has gotten in on the act with the annual Do it For Durrett nights, raising money to help families who have suffered an unexpected loss – in honor of Richard Durrett, the ESPN beat writer who passed away unexpectedly in 2014. This year, the event (held on June 27th) raised over $160,000, putting the total amount raised in four years at just over $1m.
Wakamatsu knows he’s not alone in his efforts. He also knows that even pre-existing charities can benefit from a fundamental bit of help: food.
He has enlisted help from a number of sponsors. The foundation has grown quickly, holding events in Kansas City (with Drew Butera, whose foundation helps a local animal shelter), Washington (giving away backpacks), and St. Louis (passing out down jackets).
Meanwhile, Wakamatsu is doing his best to save the family farm. One goal is to turn it into a non-profit, similar to Stone Barns, just outside Yonkers, NY, which has a for-profit restaurant that helps fund the non-profit to educate the next generation of farmers.
Is it ambitious to think that Don Wakamatsu can save farms, feed inner-city kids, and do it all through baseball? Of course it is. But any progress beats giving up. Wakamatsu says he was reminded of this last winter when longtime friend Rob Picciolo passed away unexpectedly.
“It started sticking with me how short life is. And how much do we want to be remembered for? What impact do we want to be remembered for? What footprint do we want to be remembered for? This is my passion.”
To learn more about the WakWay foundation, including ways you can help or donate, click here.