Genuine Throwback: Don Wakamatsu returns to Oakland with the Ballers

ON THE BALL — Oakland Ballers Executive Vice President of baseball Operations Don Wakamatsu speaks during a news conference at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., Nov. 28, 2023. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Don Wakamatsu’s baseball roots run deep. If you trace them back to their origins, you’ll find yourself at the Oakland Coliseum in the early 1970s, cheering on a dynastic Athletics team that captured three consecutive World Series titles.

“You walk in there and it looks like a Greek amphitheater,” Wakamatsu said, summoning childhood memories of the massive stadium where he first attended major league games. As a young fan, the exhilarating atmosphere inspired his dreamy notion that “man, it would be great to be able to be here someday in a uniform and play.”

He realized this vision sooner than expected, taking the Coliseum field as an athlete with Hayward High School back when the pro venue regularly hosted prep sports. On the same hallowed ground where both the A’s and the Raiders brought glory to Oakland, the teenaged Wakamatsu tasted baseball playoff action and captured a 1981 football championship.

Following graduation, his playing career carried him away to various far-flung locations, sending him first in Arizona for college and then to destinations all across the minor league map.

Eventually, the Chicago White Sox awarded him a roster spot as a backup catcher in 1991. That season was the only one he ever spent in the majors, but it gave him a chance to return to the Coliseum, suit up, and see some action (although just briefly, for a single plate appearance, in which Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley struck him out on three pitches).

After many more years roving the landscape of professional baseball, Wakamatsu came back to Oakland in 2008 when the A’s hired him as a bench coach. He manned the Coliseum dugout for one season before the Seattle Mariners hired him away to helm their club, making him the first Asian American manager in major league history.

Wakamatsu continued to frequent the Coliseum, though, passing through the visitors locker room as Mariners skipper and then later as bench coach for the Blue Jays, Rangers and Royals (with whom he won the World Series in 2015).

Although he stopped coaching a few years ago, the 61-year-old has recently found himself back in Oakland for more baseball — but this time unconnected to the A’s, who have announced that they will vacate the Coliseum at the end of this season as part of a drawn-out relocation to Las Vegas. While local fans mourn the impending departure of the iconic franchise, Wakamatsu is stepping up to help bring them a fresh alternative.

He’s rolling into town with the Oakland Ballers, a completely new professional baseball team which will play its first-ever home opener at Raimondi Park on June 4. Launched late last year as an expansion club in the independent Pioneer League, the organization tapped Wakamatsu to serve as executive vice president of baseball operations.

“I’ve been a long-time Oakland supporter, and it’s part of the reason that I did take this job,” he said, adding, “it caught my attention — the fact that we could make an impact.”

As someone who benefitted so profoundly from growing up around such a robust sports culture, Wakamatsu believes his current undertaking can provide the city with a similar boost and alleviate the pain of the A’s, Raiders and Warriors all leaving. “To lose three major franchises,” he lamented, “is devastating for a community,” but “I think that’s part of what we’re hoping to mend a little bit.” He acknowledged that “obviously we’re on a totally different stage — we’re not that big — but I think it’s got to start somewhere, and the timing of us couldn’t be better.”

Even within the smaller scale of the 12-team Pioneer League, building an expansion club from scratch has required herculean effort, including formidable tasks like compiling a roster, generating publicity and securing a ballpark. Undaunted, Wakamatsu has approached these tasks with enthusiasm.

“I think my role has kind of changed as we’ve gone along,” he said, noting that his workload has piled up. “Initially it was going to be more part-time, more just overseeing, being more of a baseball advisor — and I think it’s grown into, ‘All hands on deck,’ try to get the program going,” he explained.

“And that’s what I enjoy — I enjoy having some self-worth in an organization,” he continued, adding, “It’s been great. I’ve loved it so far.”

Despite racking up decades of experience on diamonds and in dugouts, Wakamatsu is a rookie in the front office, having never dipped into baseball operations like this before. Nonetheless, he exudes a sense of calm confidence, articulating a vision of compassionate leadership that feels reassuring. “It’s always about creating an environment where people want to come to work and enjoy what they’re doing — everything else will take care of itself,” he said.

He wants to use the same approach with fans and demonstrate that “we’re doing the best we can and we really care about them.” Wakamatsu intends to prioritize communication — especially with disaffected A’s die-hards, such as members of the Oakland 68’s community group — to learn “how can we improve the game.” By “constantly making adjustments” based on that feedback, he expects to foster “a great fan experience.”

Will he be able to achieve that end, along with the many other goals necessary for the Ballers to thrive? The answer remains uncertain, given that such an unprecedented venture faces countless complex challenges, threatening failure at every turn. For Wakamatsu, however, the blueprint for success simply means confirming “that this is where everybody wants to be” — rooted in Oakland and enjoying exciting baseball, just like when he was a kid.

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