The Seattle Times recently spoke with Lenn Sakata about fellow Japanese-American and current Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu.
Sakata, who currently manages a minor league club in Japan, offers some pointed insights in the article, which also reviewed the former Oriole’s baseball credentials.
Make no mistake, though, Sakata is one who cares. He’s immensely proud of the fact that he was the second Japanese-American to wear a major-league uniform after fellow Hawaiian Ryan Kurosaki pitched seven games for St. Louis in 1975.
Sakata, an All-American second baseman at Gonzaga, was drafted by Milwaukee in 1975. He began his major-league career with the Brewers in 1977, but is best remembered for his six seasons in Baltimore.
He was the last guy to play shortstop before iron man Cal Ripken moved there permanently from third base in 1982, just 28 games into his record streak of 2,632 consecutive games played. Sakata was also a member of the Orioles’ 1983 World Series championship team. In fact, the turning point for the Orioles that season well might have been a game in which Sakata was the improbable savior and then the unlikely hero.
The Orioles had been in a tight race all summer long and stood a half-game out of first place as they played Toronto on Aug. 24. The game went into extra innings with skipper Joe Altobelli having managed himself out of catchers, so he shifted Sakata behind the plate from second base. It was the first and only inning Sakata played at catcher in his 11-year major-league career.
Three successive Toronto batters reached base in the 10th inning, each with the idea of running on the novice catcher. They were so brazen with their leads that pitcher Tippy Martinez, not known for a strong move to first, picked each one off. Then, in the bottom of the frame, the fill-in catcher made sure he wouldn’t have to endure another inning out of position by belting a three-run home run, one of just three homers he hit that season.
“The funny thing is,” Sakata recalls, “When you’re thinking about having to catch one more inning, my legs were already shaking because I wasn’t used to squatting and the pressure of the game itself and having to catch. I was just thinking, ‘Let me get a hit so the game is over,’ and then I just happened to hit a hanging slider and it went over the fence. It was unbelievable.”
The victory halted a two-game slide and propelled the Orioles to an eight-game winning streak during which they recaptured first place and never fumbled it the rest of the way.