WITH EVERY lineup he presents, every stroll to the mound, every signal to the bullpen and every word he utters before cameras sending his image around the globe, Don Wakamatsu realizes he represents so much more than himself.
Everywhere he goes, his ancestors follow. Everything he says is influenced by their stories.
Their lives are defined by bigotry and isolation, to which they responded with strength and perseverance — and, ultimately, the capacity not only to endure but to prosper.
Two weeks after Barack Obama became the first African-American elected president, Wakamatsu became the first Asian-American hired to manage a major league baseball team. Though each was handed a gigantic task and is being asked to fulfill lofty ambitions, each also knows he embodies the progress of a nation.
So Wakamatsu's significance in this place and time extends beyond any prestige gained in taking over the Seattle Mariners. Nearly 30 years after graduating from Hayward High, he is a pioneer. The kid whose paternal grandparents were shuttled to various internment camps during World War II because they were of Japanese descent has grown into an authority figure in the All-American game.
"I don't know if it clicked with them until I had them up for Opening Day in Seattle," Wakamatsu says now, sitting in the visiting manager's office at the Coliseum. "Baseball has never been a big part of their life."
That's when Mariners star Ken Griffey shared his suite at Safeco Field with Wakamatsu's family. There were his grandparents, 93 and 91 years old, unable to fully follow the action but well aware of the history. There was his mom, a proud Irish-American, and his dad, a third-generation Japanese-American who was born at the Tule Lake War Relocation Authority Camp near the Oregon border.
All were there to share this special moment with Don, who before his parents moved to Hayward spent his early childhood in the same barracks in which his grandparents had been forced to live.
After the war, the structure was offered to his grandparents, who bought it, uprooted from Tule Lake and transported it to Hood River, Ore. More than 60 years later, James and Ruth Wakamatsu still live under the roof of a building that once imprisoned them.
"It meant a lot to win that game and be able to look up toward the suite afterward," Wakamatsu says. "I've always said I wouldn't have been here if it weren't for all the things they went through. It's kind of nice to at least think that I made 'em proud."
Wakamatsu, 46, seemed destined for a position of accountability. Whether he was a three-sport star and Jack Del Rio's teammate at Hayward or Barry Bonds' teammate at Arizona State — where Wakamatsu was a three-time All-Pac-10 catcher — he always was a man of dignity and perspective.
Naturally. His grandparents lost their freedoms simply because of their nationality. His father, Leland, was born under detention. All three and his mother, Sandra, were laborers.
Don, who inherited their work ethic, spent 12 years as a pro, nearly all in the minor leagues. He retired in 1996, at age 33, with 18 big-league at-bats. Which allowed lots of time to observe and analyze and, along with his wife, Laura, dream of the day a door would open and their lives would change.
"She's been with me the whole time, through all the travel and not having money or much of anything else," he says. "We had a little Honda Civic, with everything we owned in the back.
"So it's a neat feeling to be able to say, 'Honey, thanks for sticking with me all these years.' Having a job like this, an opportunity like this ... it means an awful lot."
Wakamatsu is Seattle's third manager since July 2007. He is trying to change the culture of a team that lost 101 games in 2008. His fate is unknown.
His place in history, however, is evident.
As is his significance to a people and to his family. This much he realized on Opening Day. And again this week, while surrounded by relatives for a Memorial Day dinner at his parents' home in Hayward.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.