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      W A L L   O F   F A M E

MARCH 6 , 2003

Lenn Sakata
The Midget Wrestler Catches On

ODD JOBS COME WITH THE TERRITORY of being a futility infielder. Like the Boy Scouts, the futilityman's motto is "be prepared." Perhaps no futility infielder maximized this maxim better than Baltimore Oriole Lenn Sakata did on August 24, 1983. Sakata entered the game at second base with the O's trailing the Toronto Blue Jays, 2-1 in the 8th inning. The Jays scored in that inning, widening the gap to 3-1. But with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, Sakata drew a walk and, two singles later, came around to score the tying run.

The rally had left the Orioles lineup in a helter-skelter state, requiring manager Joe Altobelli to do some juggling. Having pinch-hit for catcher Joe Nolan, who himself had pinch-hit for starting catcher Rick Dempsey in the 7th, Altobelli was down to his emergency backstop. Sakata donned the tools of ignorance while leftfielder John Lowenstein came in to play second base and pinch-hitter Gary Roenicke (normally Lowenstein's platoon partner in left), took over at third.

The makeshift infield wasn't much help as pitcher Tim Stoddard surrendered a leadoff homer to Jays DH Cliff Johnson and then a single to Barry Bonnell. Lefty Tippy Martinez entered the game in relief of Stoddard and promptly picked off Bonnell, who had taken a big lead against the inexperienced catcher. Dave Collins drew a walk from Martinez, and in preparing to challenge Sakata's arm, was picked off by Martinez as well. Willie Upshaw then beat out a single to Lowenstein. Yet again, Martinez picked off the runner, ending one of the most bizarre half-innings in major-league history. But the game wasn't over yet. Some guy named Ripken led off the Oriole 10th with a homer, tying the score. With two on and two out, Sakata poked a 3-run homer off of Randy Moffitt to give the O's the victory, 7-4. As they say, you could look it up.

That wasn't the only Sakata home run which stands out in the annals of baseball history. On June 10, 1982, Sakata led off a game against the Milwaukee Brewers with a homer. Writer Daniel Okrent chose that contest for a batter-by-batter dissection and digression which yielded his classic book Nine Innings. The Orioles lost that seesaw contest to the Brew Crew, foreshadowing one of the most riveting divisional races in history.

Ironically enough, Sakata actually reached the majors with the Brewers, debuting on July 21, 1977. In his first at-bat, he struck out looking against Catfish Hunter in Yankee Stadium: welcome to the big leagues, kid. The diminutive Hawaiian (only 5'9", 160 lbs) spent his first three seasons in Milwaukee, lost in a logjam of talented young middle infielders: Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Jim Gantner. It didn't help that Sakata spent those years wandering south of the Mendoza Line, hitting a meager .162 in 1977 and a slight .192 in 1978. He received only a brief cup of coffee from the Brew Crew in '79 (during which he went 7-for-14), and was traded to the O's for pitcher John Flinn that winter.

With a penchant for pinch-hitting for his offensively-challenged middle infielders (such as Mark Belanger and Rich Dauer), Orioles manager Earl Weaver was perhaps the ideal skipper to take advantage of Sakata's limited skills. Despite another sub-Mendoza Line season (.193), Sakata showed some worth off the bench, going 4-for-5 as a pinch-hitter. The next season he raised his average to a whopping .227 and showed a surprising amount of pop, stroking 5 homers in 150 at-bats. Sakata had picked up his strength by being one of the first major-leaguers to turn to the Nautilus machine; wrote Okrent:

...standing next to a taller teammate, like the elongaged Jim Palmer, Sakata's overdeveloped chest and shoulders gave him the appearance of a midget wrestler.

Sakata opened the 1982 season as Baltimore's starting shortstop, and held the job through the first half of the season. But on July 1, Cal Ripken Jr. started at shortstop in place of Sakata. Aside from a few games here and there, it was over 14 years before Ripken went back to third. But the ever-versatile Sakata handled the move well, sharing time with Dauer at second, playing in 136 games overall, and setting career highs in nearly every offensive category. For the season he hit .259 AVG/.323 OPB/.370 SLG with 6 homers and 31 RBI. Weaver's infield juggling nearly paid off, though the O's fell short in the AL East race by a game. But the great Baltimore skipper retired following the '82 season, and Sakata figured less prominently in new manager Altobelli's mix in 1983, appearing in only 66 games. The results — a World Championship — were tough to argue with, though Sakata played in only one World Series game.

He playing four more seasons, finishing his career with the New York Yankees. Following the end of his playing days, Sakata, like a typical futility infielder, went into coaching. In 1988, his first year out of the majors, he was the Northwest League Manager of the Year for the A's Southern Oregon franchise. He went on to coach in the Angels' system and for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan before returning to the States via the Giants' organization. After four years as a manager (the last with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, which shakes me because I could swear that Rocky Bridges is still piloting the Phoenix Giants), Sakata has been promoted to the position of roving minor-league instructor for hitting, bunting, baserunning and infield.

• • •

For all of that, Sakata sticks in my mind for an even more personal reason. In March 1986, my father took my brother and me down to Arizona for spring training, Cactus League-style. Among five teams — the A's, Angels, Indians, Giants, and Mariners — we saw 6 games in 3 days, including a split-squad game and an Arizona State University game. Arriving hours before first pitch, we had plenty of time to take photos, hunt for autographs and chase foul balls while the players took batting practice and shagged flies. I photographed Dusty Baker, then with the A's, and got the signatures of Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds, coaches for the Giants. I even brushed Reggie Jackson, who brushed off my autograph request. And I had my first conversation with a major league ballplayer. You guessed it: Lenn Sakata.

In retrospect, it was a telling encounter. Scanning a field full of players who were practicing, many of who I recognized from their baseball card photos (and some of whom I realize retrospectively — rookies Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco — that it would have been a whole lot cooler if I had), I seized on the oddball. I knew Sakata well from his Topps visage; as one of the few Asians in the majors, he stood out in a crowd. What made him stand out even more was what he was doing: in the catcher's crouch but sans mask, warming up pitchers alongside a true A's catcher.

After a short period, Sakata was rotated out and he stood by the fence. At this point, I asked for an autograph and struck up a conversation, something witty along the lines of, "So Lennnny, you gonna catch this year?" Sakata smiled the whole time, offering something back along the lines of "I'll play wherever they want me to play. You gotta stay ready." The autograph is long gone, but I did manage to preserve the photograph of Sakata performing bullpen duties. He played only 17 games with the A's that season, but never behind the plate.

But the story doesn't end there. In February 2003, San Jose Mercury News writer Dan Brown stumbled across my page while researching a story on the offbeat careers of the Giants minor league coaches, who included Fred (Chicken) Stanley and Sakata (now a roving instructor). Amused by my page, he emailed me, recounting the story of Sakata's brief catching appearance. I offered my own Sakata-as-catcher story in return, and in the next week he interviewed me for the story, which became the first time this website was mentioned in the mainstream media.

Thank you, Lennnny. You've certainly earned your spot on my Wall of Fame.