Monday, December 1, 2014

Card #136: Lenn Sakata

Who Can It Be Now?
Lenn Haruki Sakata was born on June 8, 1954, in Honolulu, Hawaii. I'm leaning on his SABR biography for his background here. Sakata was a fourth generation American on his father's side, while his mother was born in Niigata, Japan. His dad Haruki fought valiantly against the Germans in World War II alongside Hawaiian hero, the late Daniel Inouye, in the 442nd Infantry Regiment and also served in the field artillery battalion which liberated the Dachau concentration camp.

Lenn played baseball through high school. He graduated at the age of 17 and came to the U.S. mainland to study and play ball at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon. He was drafted for the first time by the San Francisco Giants in the 14th round of the 1972 June draft but did not sign. He transferred to Gonzaga University, and, while there, set a university record for RBI in a season that was not broken until Jason Bay topped the mark in 1999.

He was drafted for the second time with the first pick in the 5th Round of the 1974 June Draft, this time by the San Diego Padres. Once again, he did not sign. Finally, in January of 1975, the Milwaukee Brewers drafted Sakata in the 1st round (10th pick) of the Secondary Draft. Sakata's signing angered Gonzaga coach Larry Koentopp, with Koentopp claiming that the Brewers had pressured Sakata to sign -- saying that Sakata had "been hot-boxed." The Brewers said that they followed all the rules and the coach was simply upset. No matter -- Sakata joined the Brewers organization.

Based on his being an advanced college player, Milwaukee assigned Sakata to Double-A Thetford Mines in the Eastern League for the 1975 season. Sakata acquitted himself well at the plate and in the field that year (.257/.340/.356 with 9 HR and 16 SB in 486 PA, 4.68 range factor per game), so the Brewers promoted him to Triple-A Spokane for the 1976 season. And there, Sakata stayed for parts of three seasons. Indeed, the only thing that ended his return to Spokane (for a stay longer than when he attended college there!) was the fact that Milwaukee switched its Triple-A association to Vancouver in 1979. 

In his time in the minor leagues, Sakata always hit well -- even hitting with a little pop. But, he became well known for his glove. While certainly hyperbole sets in when you have the local Spokane paper talking about their old college pal Sakata, columnist Harry Missildine in 1977 said that the greatest fielding second baseman that he had EVER seen was Lenn Sakata. His instincts and reflexes while playing the field were excellent, but getting stuck in Triple-A due to his bat not coming alive in the majors became his biggest problem.

Sakata did see limited playing time from 1977 to 1979 in the majors with the Brewers. Despite getting his greatest playing time in 1977 under manager Alex Grammas, it appears that Grammas just hated Sakata. This Milwaukee Journal story from 1978 quotes an unnamed "Brewers starter" as saying that, "Lenny got up there in July, and Grammas got all over him right away. Hell, he hadn't yelled at the other 24 of us all year." As the Sab Reading between the lines, though, that story appears to reveal that Sakata had something of an attitude about not getting to play everyday due to the fact that Milwaukee had Don Money as its starting second baseman.

A funny thing happened in 1978, however: Sakata made the Opening Day roster. The problem for Sakata, though, was that the Brewers suddenly had a wealth of young talent in the middle infield that season. When Robin Yount held out/thought about becoming a pro golfer at the age of 22 while on the disabled list early in the season, the Brewers had a first round draft pick from the year prior who had spent 60 games in Single-A after signing from the University of Minnesota: Paul Molitor. When Yount returned to play baseball, the Brewers decided that Molitor would be their second baseman. The younger Molitor pushed Sakata back to a reserve role and, then, to the minors -- a move coinciding with Sakata's .192/.267/.244 slash line.

With the wealth of middle infield options (including Money and local boy Jim Gantner), Sakata became expendable. So, on December 6, 1979, the Brewers traded Sakata to their divisional rival, the Baltimore Orioles, in exchange for a spare part pitcher named John Flinn. 

In Baltimore, Sakata moved into Earl Weaver's rotation system eventually. It started out roughly in 1980, but then Sakata became Weaver's main shortstop when Mark Belanger was replaced. Sure, Sakata just kept the position warm for Cal Ripken to take over in 1982, but Earl loved little Lenny.

1982 would be the only season in which Sakata appeared in over 100 games. It was his most successful season offensively (1.7 WAR on offense...out of 1.9 WAR total on offense for his career) and overall -- 2.7 WAR. In 1983, he picked up a World Series ring as a member of the Orioles, flying out in the 8th inning of Game 4 as a pinch-hitter. Sakata stayed in Baltimore through 1985, filling in at second base when Rich Dauer got a rest and playing some when Alan Wiggins couldn't stay clean and sober from cocaine use.

He signed on for a short stint with the Oakland A's in 1986, appearing sparingly in the big leagues and spending most of his time in Triple-A Tacoma. He then signed with the Yankees in 1987. After an injury-plagued season which ended on June 28, 1987 with torn ankle ligaments from a slide into second base, he retired as an active player.

Mustache Check: Lenn Sakata is clean-shaven. 

Trivial Pursuit
Lenn Sakata is the answer to two trivia questions related to his heritage and to his being born in a United States territory.  First, Sakata was only the second Japanese-American to play in a major league baseball game, and he was the first position player (the first Japanese-American to play in the majors was pitcher Ryan Kurosaki of the Cardinals).

Second, he was the first Japanese-American player to appear in a World Series game with his pinch-hitting appearance in the 1983 World Series.

Third, in a record unrelated to his heritage, he was the emergency catcher in a game in 1983 in which Tippy Martinez picked off three straight runners from first base. Apparently, the Blue Jays believed that Sakata would be easy to steal against. So, Barry Bonnell, Dave Collins, and Willie Upshaw all took too large of leads and all got picked off in the Top of the 10th inning in that game on August 24, 1983. To top it off, Sakata won the game in the bottom of the 10th with a three-run walk-off homer.

Finally, Sakata holds a second record entirely unrelated to his heritage. In September of 2007, Lenn Sakata set a California League record for most career managerial wins with 527. Since that time, he's added another 146 wins to that total.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I think Lenn Sakata held a grudge against the Milwaukee Brewers for never giving him a chance to play ahead of two future Hall of Famers. Sakata had 25 career home runs. Of those, 5 came against the Milwaukee Brewers. His career SLG against Milwaukee was .436 -- the highest he had against any team -- and his OPS of .770 was higher against Milwaukee than against any one else by 20 points. If not for bad luck on his BABIP (.250 career), it would have been even worse.

In fact, as this game story from 1981 points out, of Sakata's first 6 homers as a big league player, three came against Milwaukee and two of those came in a game in 1981 that knocked the Brewers temporarily out of first place in the AL East's second season that year. Sakata was quoted as saying, "I still try to play extra hard against Milwaukee." Sakata did say that he understood being replaced by Molitor completely in that 1981 game story, and he believed that the Brewers treated him fairly. But still, this guy KILLED Milwaukee.

As the Trivial Pursuit above might hint at, Sakata is a baseball man through and through. After he retired from playing in organized baseball, he managed in the short-season Northwest League in 1988. After a detour to play in the Senior League in 1989, he returned to the minor leagues as the hitting instructor in Edmonton and, later, Vancouver.  

In an effort to move himself up the chain, he decided in 1995 to move to Japan with his good friend Bobby Valentine to coach with the Chiba Lotte Marines. He never learned Japanese while there, though, because of being assigned an interpreter by the team. He left Japan after clashing with ownership over the need for weight training. 

He then came back to the States and began his decade-plus (and counting) managerial career in the Single-A California League. He returned to Chiba Lotte in 2008 and 2009 to manage them, but came back to the US in 2011. In his time as a manager, his team made the playoffs 8 times and won the California League title three times. 

He is revered in his home state of Hawaii for his continued efforts to promote baseball there. He was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 alongside fellow former major leaguers Sid Fernandez and Mike Lum and alongside another Sakata: Harold Sakata, who was better known as playing Odd Job in James Bond movies but also was a silver medalist in weightlifting in the 1948 Summer Olympics.

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