After a Six-Year Retirement Asian American Baseball Pioneer Returns to Manage in the Minor League
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
After six years in retirement, baseball veteran Lenn Sakata has returned to the sport to manage the San Jose Giants minor league baseball team.
Born in Honolulu, Sakata spent nearly 50 years in both the major and minor leagues as a baseball player, coach and manager. During his career, the 68-year-old was inducted into the Hawai‘i Sports Hall of Fame and the California League Hall of Fame.
Sakata spent 11 years as a player before shifting over to coaching. As a manager he leads the California League in several categories, including number of wins, championships and years managed.
This year will be Sakata’s fifth outing managing the San Jose Giants. He had previously served in this role on and off between 1999 and 2014, and returned to the job again this year after one of his former players, Kyle Haines, asked him to come back. Haines, who played for the San Jose Giants, is now the team’s director of player development.
Sakata said that the offer interested him after his time away from the game. “I did this because of my relationship and friendship with the player development coordinator – he’s an ex-player of mine,” said Sakata. “So I came back to see what baseball was about now in modern times and just to help him out.”
Many consider Sakata a trailblazer for Asian American athletes. He was the second Japanese American to play major league baseball and in 1983 became both the first player born and raised in Hawai‘i and the first Japanese American to play in the World Series.
Sakata said that the absence of Japanese Americans in sports at the time was a reflection of wider American attitudes about Asians. “There were a lot of instances where it wasn’t just blatant racism, but their attitudes about Asians were just condescending,” said Sakata. “We were a bunch of second-class people sometimes; just invisible. The Asian stereotype at the time was that nobody was athletic, or even taken seriously. So I think that’s probably why nobody even attempted to try to come at it. It just didn’t seem like we fit in.”
The ’71 Kalani High-School grad said that living in Hawai‘i shielded him from the worst of those attitudes, but leaving home to go to school opened his eyes. “We’re a multicultural state. And everybody should have the same background because virtually everybody came there to work on a plantation,” Sakata said. “So we’re all in the same situation trying to make ourselves better the life for our families. And I think because of that, I felt it was always going to be fair. I knew it was different on the mainland, but I wanted to find out what life was like, you know, away from this – the islands. I think it made me more aware of what reality really was.”
Sakata’s original plan was to go down a coaching track, playing college baseball while earning a degree in education. But after getting drafted by the San Francisco Giants in his freshman year, he came to believe he could succeed professionally as a player.
After being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1975, Sakata found himself assigned to the Brewers AA affiliate in Thetford Mines, Quebec. He said he felt conspicuous as an Asian American playing in communities that didn’t have Asian populations, whose residents had very little experience with Asians and doubted his abilities on account of his size and appearance.
“That’s why to prove them wrong was one of the things that I guess motivated me,” Sakata said. “Because when you’re the only one and you represent your entire culture, you’d better be good at what you do. It drove me to represent my state and my people, to not do anything stupid. Because I knew that if I didn’t do well, it probably would have been harder for the next guy.”
Sakata found that professional baseball was very different than he had expected. “I love baseball. I thought it would be easy to play every day,” Sakata said. “And then I realized that this was really a marathon.” There were more players and fewer teams. Travel conditions were grueling. Pay was miniscule. Days off were non-existent.
“I had to get up and perform every day. So that made me very determined,” he recalls. “Just doing this was going to be a challenge. And hardly anybody that was not playing baseball professionally had any idea about how unglamorous the whole thing was.”
Despite these hardships, Sakata still treasures those days. “I loved the game the way it was,” he reflects. “I still have fond memories of the experiences I had and the players I’ve been around. I’ve thought about this very deeply and the fact that I was able to play with some really great players – Hall of Fame players – is something that I will never forget.” Such well-known athletes included National Baseball Hall of Fame player Cal Ripken, Jr.
And despite facing prejudice, Sakata felt that he’d chosen the right path. “The reason we do certain things is because we believe in something,” said Sakata. “And I believed that baseball was going to be a good career in a lot of different respects. And I still think that. I’m glad I decided to play baseball. I had to put everything I had into it. And so from that standpoint, I feel I achieved what I set out to do, which everybody thought was impossible.”
Scott Baba is a writer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A yonsei, he has spent his life as an active member of the Japanese American community. He currently reports for KPFA News in Berkeley, California.