Wakamatsu, the first Asian American manager in the Major Leagues, fired


Nichi Bei Weekly Report

The historic tenure of the first Asian American manager in the major leagues came to an abrupt halt Aug. 9, the very day that the Seattle Mariners hosted the Oakland A’s in celebration of Japanese Heritage Night.

On an occasion when Seattle skipper Don Wakamatsu expected to honor his Japanese roots, he instead met with the rude awakening of being fired.

Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik replaced Wakamatsu on an interim basis with Daren Brown, the club’s Triple-A manager for the past four seasons. Much of the team’s leadership was purged as bench coach Ty Van Burkleo, pitching coach Rick Adair and performance coach Steve Hecht were also given their pink slips.

“I do not take this decision lightly. I have wrestled with this,” Zduriencik said at an afternoon news conference at Safeco Field. “…The truth of the matter is, I had lost confidence in Don, Ty and Rick as the best fit for us this season and as we move forward.”

The firings come less than a year after Wakamatsu led the Mariners to a 24-game turnaround during his managerial debut. Although Wakamatsu guided Seattle to a 85-77 record last year, the Mariners’ record on the day of his sophomore season firing was a dismal 42-70.

But some players accepted part of the responsibility for the course of the season.

“It’s not fair to say the manager has to take all the blame,” right fielder Ichiro Suzuki said in an article on MLB.com. “I’m just saying as a group we are all to blame.”

This year was a far contrast to last season’s magical improvement, which saw the return of Mariners icon and future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. But Griffey himself retired abruptly earlier this season after an extended slump, and Wakamatsu had a run-in in the dugout with Chone Figgins on national television July 23 after he benched the second baseman following a perceived lack of hustle on the field.

“It’s frustrating because when he came in as manager last year everything worked so well,” Suzuki said. “We haven’t been able to do that year. It’s the whole club that’s responsible.”

A three-sport star at Hayward High School in the East Bay, the Yonsei grew up playing in the Japanese American baseball and basketball leagues.

A 1981 graduate of Hayward High, he started his collegiate career at Arizona State University — where he earned All-Pacific 10 Conference honors in each of his last three seasons.

The catcher was eventually selected in the 11th round of the 1985 amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds, but mostly bounced around the minors over a 12-year span that saw him on seven different ball clubs.

In 1998 he was named “Manager of the Year” for the California League, as the head skipper of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Single-A minor league team.

He had held minor league managerial positions at several other ball clubs as well, including Double-A Erie (2000), Double-A El Paso (1999) and Peoria of the Arizona League (1997).

Wakamatsu moved back home in 2008 to join the staff of A’s manager Bob Geren, serving as bench coach. He then broke new ground as the first Asian American manager when he got the call from Seattle in advance of the 2009 season.

In a brief statement issued through the team’s public relations department, Wakamatsu thanked the city of Seattle and its fans in the Northwest for their support during his tenure as skipper.

My single biggest disappointment is that we were not able to finish what we wanted to finish here, bringing a championship club to the fans,” he stated. “I cannot tell you how great the fans were to me, and to my family. The support I received here will always mean a great deal to me.”

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