Wakamatsu draws plenty of praise

Wakamatsu draws plenty of praise

When Don Wakamatsu was announced as manager of the Seattle Mariners, there was a common response from fans: "Who?"

People in professional baseball could have provided the answer on his background and qualifications. They understood and applauded the decision by the Mariners to give the 45-year-old former catcher his chance to manage at the Major League level.

The praise for Wakamatsu came from such high-profile people as former manager Buck Showalter and current general managers Billy Beane of Oakland and Jon Daniels of Texas, but the support for the man known as "Wak" goes much deeper.

Wakamatsu started his professional baseball career in 1985, when he was drafted by Cincinnati in the 11th round out of Arizona State University, and he made his presence known every step along the way.

"Don was one of the smartest players that I ever played with, and he was very analytical about every baseball situation," said Rafael Bournigal, a veteran of 14 professional seasons and a teammate of Wakamatsu in 1992 and 1993 with the Los Angeles Dodgers' Triple-A Albuquerque team.

"He used to break down pitchers very well, and he was great studying the tendencies of players. He was one of the best teammates I had during my career in that he would do anything to help his team win.

"I feel he will be a great big league manager, as he has leadership and communication skills combined with baseball knowledge."

Bournigal had hundreds of teammates during his 14-year career, but it is clear that Wakamatsu stood out.

Even though Wakamatsu had been a four-year starter for Arizona State, and the team went to the College World Series twice during that span, it became clear that his path to reach the Major Leagues was going to be a struggle.

Only twice during a dozen professional seasons did he have a chance to play in more than 100 games (with Tampa in 1986 and Cedar Rapids in 1987 while with the Cincinnati organization), but that didn't stop Wakamatsu from learning the game and giving an all-out effort at all times.

Wakamatsu's drive to reach the big league level and the things he learned along the way should serve him well as the manager of the Mariners.

The fact is, Wakamatsu never would have had an opportunity to play in the Major Leagues had it not been for a "B" game in Spring Training as a member of the Chicago White Sox organization in the spring of 1991.

Wakamatsu's assignment was to catch the knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough in one of those early spring games played far removed from the crowds attracted by the big league team.

It was an assignment no catcher favors and most starting catchers run from, handling a knuckleball pitcher on a back field where hitters don't want to mess up their timing and receivers want to come away without a broken finger.

"The thing I remember about Don that day was that he was excited about catching me because I was part of the White Sox rotation," recalls Hough. "He did a great job in that game, and when our backup catcher Ron Karkovice was injured early in the season, we were looking for another guy, because our starting catcher, Carlton Fisk, had no interest in catching me, and rightfully so."

Wakamatsu, in his seventh professional season and at the age of 28, was called to the Major Leagues to become Hough's personal catcher. His only 18 games at the Major League level came during that season as the catcher for Hough.

"In one season, I could see that Don loved the game and wanted to do whatever it took to help his team win," said Hough. "There are a lot of catchers who are concerned about their stats when it comes to catching a knuckleball pitcher, but Don simply wanted to play. He had no fear in that he would call for the knuckleball at any count in any situation.

"He was a rookie, but he showed that he believed in me. I'll tell you one thing, Don caught a lot better than I pitched."

One season later, Wakamatsu was back in the Minors with Albuquerque in the role of backing up a player who eventually will end up in the Hall of Fame -- Mike Piazza.

When Wakamatsu's playing career ended in 1996, he went looking for a job to stay in the game. Veteran scout and player personnel director Mel Didier gave Wakamatsu a job as a catching instructor and Arizona Fall League manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"Don did a great job for us, and he showed all of the skills you need to be a successful manager," said Didier. "He has great people skills. He reminds me a lot of [Angels manager] Mike Scioscia in the way he handles players and in his knowledge of the game.

"Don is going to be a successful manager -- there is no doubt in my mind."

You want to know the answer to "Who?" when Wakamatsu's name is mentioned today.

Ask a former Minor League teammate, ask the pitcher who said this catcher could handle a knuckleball at the Major League level, ask the veteran baseball man who started him on the road to managing.

Wakamatsu has paid his dues. The Seattle Mariners figure to reap the benefits of all of that experience.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving as Executive Vice-President and general manager. His book-Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue-was published by SportsPublishingLLC This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.