Wakamatsu works with pros and amateurs alike
Don Wakamatsu at John Rubinow's
Pro-Ball Clinic in January 2011.
By Jeff McGaw/HardBall, Summer 2011
Don Wakamatsu owns a unique slice baseball history.
He was the first Asian-American manager in Major League Baseball history when the Seattle Mariners named him as skipper on Nov. 19, 2008. His team finished 85-77 in 2009—a 24-game turn-around from the previous season.
Although the relationship did not last—the Mariners relieved Wakamatsu of command in August, 2010—his future in baseball remained bright because, just months later, the Toronto Blue Jays hired him as their bench coach.
The 48-year-old Wakamatsu also owns a special place in the hearts of many MSBL players. As a regular coach at the Pro Ball Baseball Clinic, an adult baseball camp in Peoria, Arizona, "Wak” works with amateur players from across the country.
"I like Wak so much because of his baseball intellect and his passion for teaching,” said Pro Camp founder John Rubinow. "We are talking about a very smart guy here, on and off the field. He is, in a word, a leader.”
Wakamatsu deals with pro players for a living, but, as Rubinow said, he is adept at dealing with amateurs. "He is so concise and clear in his communication skills, and he is patient.” When campers show improvement, "Wak gets genuinely excited for them,” Rubinow said. "That is cool stuff.”
Wakamatsu, a fourth generation Japanese American, was born Feb. 22, 1963 in Hood River, Oregon. He is married to wife Laura and has three kids, one of whom is a major league baseball prospect. He currently lives in North Richland Hills, Texas. Wakamatsu attended high school in Hayward, California, and was a four year starter for the Arizona State University Sun Devils from 1982-1985. He earned all Pac-10 honors as a catcher in his final three years.
Originally drafted by the Reds in 1985, Wakamatsu caught 18 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1991. His teammates included current manager Ozzie Guillen, Frank Thomas, Bo Jackson, and one of his childhood idols Carlton Fisk. Wakamatsu started nine times in the majors, all as the catcher for knuckleballer Charlie Hough.
"I'll make you a better catcher,” Hough once told Wakamatsu. Wakamatsu's first start in the majors ranks among his greatest baseball memories. "”I was catching Charlie Hough in Anaheim,” he said. As he and Hough walked out to the field for warmups, Wakamatsu told Hough, "I'm nervous,” to which Hough, a 24-year-league veteran at the time, replied, "so am I.”
Wakamatsu finished playing in 1996 and turned to coaching. He worked under Buck Showalter and Ron Washington in Texas, and was the bench coach for the A's in 2008 before taking the Seattle Job.
Wakamatsu: Quick Tip for Catchers.
"On the catching side of things, nobody is a better teacher than Wak,”said John Rubinow, founder of the Pro Ball Baseball Camp. And here is a simple, but overlooked, tip from Wakamatsu.
Most MSBL teams are not blessed with an abundance of fresh-legged, finely-tuned, physical specimens for catchers. Quite often, 30-, 40- and 50-somethings (and beyond) don the gear and do their best to just hang in there. So what's the one piece of advice for those aging backstops?
"If you're having trouble getting down, adopt a stance back there that allows you to continue to play the game,” he said. "If you try to emulate a major league catcher you sometimes can't move the next day,” he said. "So sometimes it's okay to catch on one knee,”
Make sure your body is protected in whatever stance you use, Wakamatsu added.
Perhaps more importantly, he said "the most important thing you can do for your baseball season is to put in your time before the season starts. "It's very difficult to just come out and play the game of baseball.”
|Don Wakamatsu and HardBall Editor Jeff McGaw at
2008 Pro-Ball Clinic in Peoria, Arizona.
Q&A with Don Wakamatsu
by Jackie Piro/HardBall
Don Wakamatsu was one of the guest speakers at the 2010 MSBL World Series award banquet in Phoenix. HardBall publisher Jackie Piro caught up with Wakamatsu in January 2011, at John Rubinow's Pro-Ball Camp in Peoria, Arizona, where he was coaching adult amateur ballplayers, many of them MSBL members. He had recently begun his first season as bench coach for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Q: Did your parents push you to play baseball or did you just naturally gravitate to it?
A: I think I naturally gravitated to it. My dad didn't play much baseball; he was a wrestler and a football player in high school. He was very influential in the way I think: the work ethic. He was a great example of hard work, and trying to be detailed in what you do. He was a great role model.
Q: Do you have any catching tips for our older players?
A: With these older guys, a lot of them have trouble getting down or moving to certain areas; they should try to adapt to a stance that allows them to play. Don't go out there and try to emulate a major league catcher if it means you won't be able to move the next day. It's okay at times to catch on one knee or, if you have an injury on one side, try to adapt your stance to allow you to continue to play the game that you love. That's the biggest key for me. It's not trying to be a major league catcher; it's trying to be efficient at what you do, and I think the stance, and the way you protect your body, is the biggest key.
Q: Any training tips for MSBL players?
A: The biggest thing—and an orthopedic surgeon (Preston Wolin) talked about this today at the camp—is to take care of your body so you can play. It's getting in shape. You put your time in before the season starts.
Q: How do you approach the job of coaching major leaguers?
A: You have to establish a rapport with the player before you can approach the teaching aspect of it … Players want to know that you're in their corner. It's important to dialog about things, get to know their background, get to know a little bit about them before you start.
Q: So you're in "study mode” now with Toronto?
A: Absolutely, I flew out a month ago to see J.P. Arencibia, the young catcher, down in his home town and watched him work out. Had a chance to meet and talk.…it's part of the job. I'm going to be the bench coach for them but I'm also going to be handling all the catching organization. He's a young catcher with a chance to be a good player, and both John Farrell and the rest of the organization felt it was important for me to go down before Spring Training and kind of expedite that relationship. I just spent a couple of days up in Toronto last week for a mini-camp, and got a chance to work with him again. So we're going to Spring Training with a pretty good relationship already.
Not only (am I) getting to know him, but he gets a chance to know me a little bit. I think that's important. You're going to spend the next almost eight months together. So you want to be able to have a strong relationship going into a pressure situation. They're trying to make it in the major leagues, and it's a grind. So from a coaching aspect, you're always trying to let players know that you understand, that you have some empathy for what they're going through, and that they know they have a support system in place as the season is about to start.
Q: I think catching is probably the most demanding position, both physically and mentally. What do you think?
A: Yes, I think it's the closest thing to being the manager. You're calling pitches, you're having to educate yourself more than the other players because you have an 11- to 13-man pitching staff, so you have to know the personalities and the repertoires of all the pitchers, plus you have to get involved in controlling the running game. Plus your relationship with the manager. You're getting signs from the manager, you're basically the quarterback of the defense. And then on top of that they're asking you to swing the bat too. …In the major leagues so much is done in prep work, before the game, before the series, so you have a strong understanding of a game plan going into the series. But that's probably the biggest difference between a catcher and somebody else: the interaction with the manager, the dialogue and the strategy.
Q: Talk about catching knuckleballer Charlie Hough.
A: I'm probably one of the few guys that caught that many knuckleballers. I caught Tom Candiotti a little bit, and I caught Charlie Hough. I was fortunate. The short time I played in the big leagues was because of Charlie. I was in spring training and caught him, and he liked the way I received him. Then Ron Karkavos got hit in the big leagues, and couldn't play anymore—Carlton Fisk was the other catcher but he didn't want to catch a knuckleballer—so they brought me up just to catch Charlie. But Charlie told me, "Once you catch me it will make you a better catcher.” It's a hard pitch to catch.
Q: How do you view your time as manager in Seattle?
A: I look at things as a positive. I had the opportunity to be a big league manager, and the first Asian-American manager. Those are things that you've got to be awfully thankful for. The people of Seattle were unbelievable, as far as being gracious and welcoming. I had probably one of the funnest years I've ever had in baseball in '09 when we had a tremendous 24-game turnaround…So you look at the positives and you learn from your experiences there, and you move on. And now I've got an opportunity to be of some help to the Toronto Blue Jays and be of help to John Farrell, a first-year manager, so it's a pretty exciting time.
Q: Who was your role model as a catcher in the majors when you were learning catching?
A: When I was a kid, Johnny Bench and the Big Red Machine, he was probably my idol. Lance Parrish a little bit later. Carlton Fisk. Those three are probably the biggest.
Q: What is your greatest baseball memory?
A: I think for most guys it's that day they get called up to the big leagues. My greatest experience was catching Charlie Hough in Anaheim in my debut. Walking into the home plate area to start the game, and he looked at me and said "Are you nervous?” and I said "Yeah.” And he said "So am I.” He was joking obviously…trying to loosen me up.
Q: You don't play baseball anymore…do you have another athletic sport you play to keep in shape or does coaching baseball do that?
A: I think coaching, for me, it's my fix on athletics. For recreation, I love to fish, and I love to do things with the family (wife Laura, daughter Jacklyn and sons Jacob and Lucas). Because of the time constraints, any time we can, we spend time together as a family.