“I call it home.” Don Wakamatsu’s circuitous journey has found a place to settle in
Updated: Mar 19, 2019
The Athletic By Levi Weaver Mar 18, 2019
What do Barry Bonds, Tim Raines, Pedro Martínez, Sammy Sosa, Bo Jackson, Mike Piazza, Alex Rodriguez, Darryl Strawberry and Jack Del Rio have in common?
Whether in high school football or in baseball at the collegiate or professional level, they were all teammates of Don Wakamatsu.
Bonus Question: What do Lance McCullers, Eric Young, and Raul Mondesi have in common?
Bonus Answer: If you put a “Sr.” at the end of each of those names, they were also teammates of Wakamatsu. If you put a “Jr.” at the end, they are players who Wakamatsu has coached against, or — in the case of Mondesi (who now goes by “Adalberto”) — shared a dugout with at the big-league level.
The Wakamatsu baseball connection game is one you could probably play for hours if you really wanted to. The 56-year-old spent twelve years as a player in the minor leagues with the Reds, White Sox, Dodgers, Rangers, Mariners, Indians and Brewers organizations, only cracking the big leagues for 18 games in 1991 with Chicago. Count his stints as a coach, manager, scout or in other roles, and Wakamatsu says he has been a part of no fewer than half of MLB’s thirty organizations.
“I’ve been able to be fortunate enough to move around,” Wakamatsu acknowledges. “Some people think maybe that’s not good (but) I think it’s been a benefit to me because I’ve had the opportunity to talk to so many different knowledgeable baseball people. I’ve been associated with Joe Maddon and Mike Scioscia in the Angel days, to being a bench coach for so many different managers, from Bob Geren to John Farrell to Buck Showalter to – well, I didn’t realize it, but I’ve been part of the staff at some point for the last four managers here (in Texas).”
While Wakamatsu’s particular journey through the sport has been a unique one, he does have this in common with baseball lifers: he started early. He was born in Hood River, Oregon, but by the time he was in high school, he was a three-sport star at Hayward High School, about halfway between Oakland and Fremont, California. He played basketball, football — there’s the Jack Del Rio teammate connection — and baseball.
“But even more importantly, in the summer I played for a team called Bercovich,” Wakamatsu adds. “They’re a legendary team in the Bay Area that had Randy Johnson, Dale Sveum… probably 50 different major league players from that team and we played over 100 games a summer … So, that was kind of the turning point; if you’re going to play 100 games in the summer as a high school kid, you’re pretty committed. I loved football probably as much as anything but wasn’t really physical enough to play at a higher level, so I chose baseball.”
After first being drafted by the Yankees in 1984, Wakamatsu opted to play one more year — his third with Barry Bonds at Arizona State University — and was drafted 50 rounds and 833 picks after his teammate. Both ended up in the NL Central, Bonds with the Pirates organization and Wakamatsu with the Reds.
The similarities between their careers more or less end there, but Wakamatsu says his time as a minor-league journeyman has been vital to his ability to coach, especially when communicating difficult decisions to younger players.
“I was released twice as a player, played for seven different minor league organizations, kind of the Crash Davis (type),” Wakamatsu acknowledges. “So to go into the coaching side was a natural fit because I think I could relate to everybody … I can say that I played at the highest level, but I can also sympathize with the players who got released … They knew I’d been through it. If you don’t go through it, it’s hard to sit in their shoes and say ‘I’m going to take your career away and release you.’ I’ve been there and actually made it to the big leagues after I got released, so all of those experiences led to the success and my enjoyment of running the minor leagues and coaching in the minor leagues.”
In 2009, his journey through the various bus routes and minor-league parks led him to the doorway of history. He was named the manager of the Seattle Mariners, becoming the first Japanese-American manager in MLB history. While he doesn’t speak Japanese (“I took a year in college but it’s very difficult to maintain it. I understand a little bit.”) he has become something of an ambassador, doing short-term work with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and the Hiroshima Carp. When the Rangers brought Kenji Yano to camp this Spring, it was Wakamatsu who insisted that the recently-retired player be allowed to work on the big-league side of camp, rather than going to work with the minor league coaches.
Here’s another name to add to the Don Wakamatsu Connection Game: Chris Woodward.
Wakamatsu was Woodward’s manager in 2009-10 when Woodward was a teammate of Adrián Beltré with the Seattle Mariners. Woodward was hired as the Rangers’ manager this off-season, and Wakamatsu — for the second time — was a competing candidate for the role.
“I know a lot of people on the outside looking in were like ‘Hey, is that going to be a problem? These guys interviewed for the same job you got,’” said Woodward earlier this Spring. “(But) Wak has been honestly – I couldn’t ask for better. Wak has been tremendous. 100% committed to what we’re trying to do here … Wak’s one of the finest men I’ve ever been around. When I started coaching, he was one of the first people I called, just to get his input and advice. So there hasn’t been a second of awkwardness at all.”
“Having a prior relationship with Woody, and kind of wrapping my arms around that was something that I felt like — if there’s anywhere I wanted to be, it was here and try to mentor him, in a sense,” says Wakamatsu. “I look at it now, the Rangers are now the one organization I spent the most of my time with so I call it home, and I told JD (GM Jon Daniels) I’d like to finish my career here.”
But as that end — however distant in the future — continues to approach, another priority has come into focus for Wakamatsu: solving food insecurity. We wrote about the WakWay foundation last year, but since then, they have partnered with a number of companies, such as Giumarra, Albertson’s-Safeway, G Texas Catering and others to try to help eliminate food waste. This spring, he has taken young ballplayers to four events (it will be five before spring training ends) that WakWay has set up in the greater Phoenix area to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to families in need.
“They’ll send a truck to Walmart and if it’s two degrees off, they have to reject it,” Wakamatsu says of one partner. “So that goes back to their warehouse and they throw it away or try to sell it out the back door … I think 8,000 tons (of fruits and vegetables) are getting thrown out annually just out in Arizona … What we’re able to do here (in Arizona) is just because of location, but we’d like to be able to do it all over the United States and that’s kind of where I’m trying to get the message out.”
If you get a chance to talk to Don Wakamatsu, ask him about WakWay. It’s inspiring to listen to anyone talk about something they’re passionate about, and his sincere enthusiasm for the project is remarkable. He says it has given him something to look forward to when baseball is over.
“I think what started me is realizing that I don’t know how many more years I’m going to coach and while I have that platform, while I have the ability to meet people and get in doors, I need to take advantage of it. That’s kind of hit me in the face, what do I want my legacy to be? What do I want some of the future players to realize? (That) they’re playing the game and getting rewarded for it is great but you have the ability to really make an impact.”
(Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)