18th of May | Story

The Hawaiian way


MODESTO, California | The familiar round glasses are long gone, little more than a memory now of the early 1980s and all the seasons before baseball players opted for contacts or surgery to correct poor vision. Lenn Sakata is back in California, and he wear wraparounds now. They are a far more effective way to block out afternoon glare during batting practice.

Sakata is 58 years old, almost a quarter of a century removed from his last game in the Majors and right in the middle of his eighth season as a manager in the California League. He is already the winningest manager in league history — 589 wins and three championships with the San Jose Giants, the Bakersfield Blaze and the Modesto Nuts — and will continue to extend his mark for at least the next three months. Batting practice and afternoon infield work never bore him. He likes to coach and teach.

“I think I still have enough energy to come out and do the physical stuff,” he says. “I’m not looking at retiring.”

Why retire? What else would Sakata do? He could return to Hawaii, where he was born, raised and still lives during the offseason. He could live at a tempo more leisurely than bus rides up and down the California coast every couple of days for five months. Or he could continue to show up every day, eight, nine, sometimes 10 hours before the first pitch, and manage a young team.

Sakata is famous for three things. On July 21, 1977, he made his Major League debut and became the second Asian-American to play in the bigs, behind his old high school teammate Ryan Kurosaki. On June 30, 1982, he was the last Baltimore Oriole to start at shortstop before Cal Ripken Jr. controlled that position on the field for the next 14 years. On August 24, 1983, he moved to catcher for the ninth inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays and remained in a crouch as Baltimore lefty Tippy Martinez picked off three straight base runners.

He is remembered, though, for a career in the Majors that lasted more than a decade, a World Series championship with the 1983 Orioles, a coaching career that has carried forward since 1987. Sakata managed teams to California League championships in 2001, 2005 and 2007, and though he has admitted during previous seasons that, “maybe, yes, I’ve been at this level much too long,” he is still effective. 

Modesto is two games under .500 and will not win the first half North Division championship. A handful of young Colorado Rockies prospects — like outfielder Corey Dickerson, first baseman Jared Clark and starters Christian Bergman and Tyler Matzek — have continued to develop, and a couple Nuts have already received promotions to the Double-A Tulsa Drillers.

“All the experiences I’ve had in baseball have been positive,” he says. “I’ve had some bad times, but I was fortunate enough to play for teams that won and with Hall of Fame players. I know what a good player looks like. I can judge talent. 

“In the minor leagues, you have to be able to judge talent.”


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Time for minor league trivia. During 67 seasons of California League baseball, four players and a manager have gone from Modesto to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. How many of them can you name? (Keep reading for the answer.)

The Nuts scored six runs in the bottom of the first inning and snapped a three-game skid in emphatic fashion with a 9-4 win over the Stockton Ports. First baseman Jared Clark hit a three-run homer high over the leftfield wall in the first, then hit another to left in the sixth — just minutes after rightfielder Corey Dickerson hit a homer to right. Righty Chad Rose picked up the win in relief after pitching 2 2-3 scoreless innings.

For 30 seasons, Modesto and Oakland shared one of the longer affiliation stretches in all of the minor leagues. After the 2004 season, though, the Athletics opted to start a new California League affiliation with Stockton. That allowed Modesto an opportunity to brand itself with a new name, new logo, new colors, new everything. The Nuts have played ever since with Al the Almond on their home caps and Wally the Walnut on their away caps.

Want the answer? Joe Morgan, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Sparky Anderson and Rickey Henderson all are enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Morgan played 45 games for the 1963 Modesto Colts before he went on to become the only second baseman to ever win back-to-back MVP awards. Fingers finished with 11 wins and a 2.77 ERA and Jackson hit 21 homers in 56 games for the 1966 Modesto A’s — a team that also included future Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa. Sparky Anderson managed the 1967 Modesto A’s to a 79-61 record and a second-half championship. Rickey Henderson batted .345 and stole 95 bases in 134 games for the 1977 Modesto A’s. Not a shabby history.

And in random statistical news, the game started four minutes later than scheduled, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter singled and the national anthem lasted 1 minute and 26 seconds. We ate a rib sandwich (similar to a McRib without onions or pickles and surprisingly delicious), a basket of chicken fingers and a pair of Slush Puppies, one green, one orange, because when stadiums have real Slush Puppies, one of us is a sucker and will drink them all night.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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