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Rays Manger Finalist Profile: Don Wakamatsu and the second chance

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The Rays decision in nigh, and it's down to two.

Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more salient characteristics of Don Wakamatsu, (now one of two candidates to be the next Rays Manager), is that he's already been fired once. There's no avoiding this fact.

Wakamatsu had a job at the highest level of baseball, it did not go well, and he was fired. He then accepted lesser jobs, where he apparently did well enough to remain in consideration for managerial job openings, the Rays manager's office among them. That's not surprising, either, as in order to be fired as a manager, you first have to be hired as one.

The fact that the Mariners once considered him qualified means that he's a good baseball man, able to excel in lower profile baseball jobs, or at least demonstrate the ability to succeed at a higher one.

That is why the case for Wakamatsu has a lot to do with previous job experience. Whether or not you favor him to be the next Rays depends on your take on that experience.

It also has a lot to do with whether or not you believe in second chances.

The First Chance

It's clear that something went dreadfully wrong for Wakamatsu in Seattle. Never mind that some might consider it a good thing to be fired by Jack Zduriencik. What happened to Waka's team, under Waka's watch, would get anyone fired anywhere.

It started when Ken Griffey Jr., one of the greatest and best-loved players to ever play the game, got old. He stopped hitting, as old people are wont to do, and then he fell asleep, also as old people are wont to do.

And that's not just a metaphor, there was one instance when Wakamatsu called on him to pinch hit, and Griffey was literally taking a nap in the clubhouse. Wakamatsu benched him, then Griffey retired.

Probably both of those things needed to happen, but the way they happened rubbed a lot of people (including Griffey's Mariners teammates) the wrong way. The team lost a legend, and Wakamatsu lost the clubhouse.

The team kept losing and some time later, Chone Figgins -- once a gold glove third baseman -- fell alseep on defense at second base, messing up a routine play. Waka benched him, and a literal fight broke out between player and manager, in which Figgins had to be restrained. Clearly the situation was untennable, as Jeff Sullivan described at the time.

That should never happen, but try to picture it on Joe Maddon's Rays. Say that an old player who the team looked up to started to slop. Maybe Joel Peralta threw one too many meatballs. Maybe he then got upset after being pulled from a game and decided it was time to retire.

Would that player do so by not showing up the next day and giving the GM a quick phone call telling him he was done? No. He would tell Joe and Andrew face to face, and Joe would have a press conference where he talks at length about how much Peralta means to this team, how he had an oversize share of creating the Rays Way, and how fierce a competitor he was. He would make it clear that the young pitchers still on this team have really big shoes to fill.

Then, imagine that the following week Yunel Escobar made a mental mistake in the field and Maddon benched him. Would Yunel start a fight? Never in a million years. You know exactly what he'd look like. He'd put his head down in the dugout and grimace in dejection.

After the game, Maddon would call him into his office and tell him that he can have the next game off to rest and regroup, but that he better get himself right because he, Yunel Escobar, is the starting shortstop, and this team needs him playing to his ability if they're going to get out of the mess of a losing season they're currently in. And Escobar, a guy labeled elsewhere as a "clubhouse cancer," would grit his teeth and try his hardest (maybe running himself into a double play, but whatever), because he had found a manager who made him feel believed in.

I'm not trying to say that Maddon was the best manager ever, because I think most major league managers can prevent fisticuffs in the dugout. It's a job requirement and an expectation. It's why Wakamatsu deserved to lose his job.

Why a second chance?

If a team pulled you or me off the street and put us in charge of a major league clubhouse, things would go south. Probably, there would be fisticuffs. That's because we'd be out of our depth. We don't know what we're doing and no amount of bravado or charisma could fool the players into thinking that we did. It would be crazy for a team to hire us and our failure would make that abundantly clear. We would never be hired again.

But Wakamatsu is not like us. He's been in baseball for a long time. He's been a successful manager at the minor league level, and he's worked next to more than one successful major league manager. Friend of the site Steve Kinsella gave a good rundown of Wakamatsu's history. Here's an abbreviated version:

  • He played as a catcher in college, in the minors, and briefly in the majors for five different teams.
  • He was a player/coach for a double-A team.
  • He was manager of a rookie league team, a high-A team, and two double-A teams (two different organizations)
  • He's been a "field coordinator," and a "special assignment scout."
  • He's been a third base coach under Ron Washington.
  • He's been a bench coach under Buck Showalter, Bob Geren, John Farrell, and Ned Yost.
  • He was, as already discussed, a major league manager.

The point is that Don Wakamatsu knows baseball, and he knows what good baseball managing looks like. He also knows what bad managing looks like, because he's failed spectacularly.

Does that failure wipe away the rest of the resume? Or does it go on the resume? If he has any capacity for self-reflection, Waka is in an ideal spot to figure out what went wrong in Seattle and learn from those mistakes.

The Belief System

Of course, hiring a manager isn't just about choosing the most experienced baseball man. The Rays should be getting the best baseball man too. Wakamatsu likes to talk about his "belief system," but what does he actually believe?

Well, as this rather breathless Associated Press story will tell you, when the Mariners hired Wakamatsu, they were trying to go in a more statistical direction than they had in the past. That means that they viewed Waka as a guy who could interface between the front office research department and the players. That's a good sign, as it's a big part of the Rays job too.

Berfore Wakamatsu fell out of favor in Seattle, David Laurila interviewed him for Baseball Prospectus. Laurila is a really good interviewer with an impressive ability to get baseball people to speak candidly and lucidly in interviews. Still, I found this one a little bit disappointing. It's long, and only rarely does Wakamatsu seem to really say something of substance. Read the whole thing, but I'd like to highlight a few of his answers.

Waka: I've been real fortunate throughout my career to be around some tremendous baseball men, and men of different personalities and different thought processes. And different teams. So, to be on teams that had superstars such as Alex Rodriguez, and Carl Everett and Rafael Palmeiro and Mark Teixeira, you can go down the list-just different types of players-to be able to watch how other managers handled those guys was valuable for me. Then, to get Ken Griffey Jr., not knowing what we had, and what kind of person he was going to be on the team-what a pleasant surprise. Especially the situation where he came in, with everybody thinking he'd maybe be playing some outfield, and getting, in a sense because of his knee and his injuries, more of just a DH.

Is it just me, or is this a really odd thing to say? "It was really great that Ken Griffey Jr. has bad knees, so we didn't have to play him in the outfield, and instead could play him at DH." News flash -- a guy with good knees can play DH too. He doesn't gain value by suddenly being confined to the bench during the top half of home innings.

On statistical analysis:

Waka: The rest is a job of deciphering. I think that you look at statistical analysis two different ways. One is that it can benefit on-field player development, and the other is that it can help you in acquiring talent. I think there is usefulness in both of those. From the field side of it, there can be paralysis by analysis. But I'm the type of guy that would like to look at everything that comes my way, anything that they can bring to my attention, so I do have an open door in that aspect. It's my job to decipher how much benefit that's going to give our baseball club.
That's the right answer. The manager's job is to take all of the information that's available and make it into something the players can use and understand.
Laurila: How much do you and Jack communicate about the lineup, and in-game strategy, during the course of the season?

Waka: Jack has been tremendous. He allows me to do my job, but also, I think we have a great partnership in the fact that we look at things. He's seen it from an above angle, which I would always cherish if he sees anything, to bring it to my attention, and vice versa. I'll always ask him, because they're running numbers, they're doing different things upstairs. The bottom line is that we get it right and I probably talk to Jack just about every day in some capacity, not always on-field stuff. It could be what's going on with players off the field, but we are in contact just about every day.
So it sounds like Wakamatsu is open minded. He certainly says the right things. Go read the rest of the interview though. I found it somewhat uninspiring, mostly because there was a lot of saying the right thing, and not a lot of teaching me, the reader, interesting things about baseball. Compare that to Laurila's interviews of Joe Maddon and Dave Martinez.

For instance, Maddon says:
Maddon: "There are a lot of ways to look at how you might augment your offense, but it can’t just be nine guys working a pitching staff over," said Maddon. "If your goal is to get a starter out of a game, that might be the last thing you want to do. You see a lot of 95-plus out of the pen now, and some of those guys have quality secondary pitches. I think it’s become easier to build bullpens, and it’s rare a team has a bad one."
That's a thought-provoking and nuanced idea. There was less of that from Martinez, but at least he's funny:
Martinez: I do everything Joe does, except I don’t have to deal with the media and I don’t get credit for anything.
Maybe it's not fair to judge Wakamatsu on what he said to a reporter a several years ago, so take this with a grain of salt. Still, I was disappointed. He says the right things, but but not in a way that's exciting.

Ephemerata

Regardless of how uninteresting he may be in the interview, the Don Wakamatsu storyline does have some character. Waka was the first Japanese-American manager in the major leagues, which is cool in its own way, but it's even cooler when you know his family's past. His grandparents were rounded up and interned, along with many other American citizens of Japanese decent, during the Second World War, in what was one of the darker moments of recent American history.

After the war, Wakamatsu's grandparents bought the barracks they were imprisoned in, and used it to build their house. Two generations later their grandson is a baseball manager and coach. If that's not the American dream, I'm not sure what is.

Also, there's Waka's lineup cards. I love quirks, and I think Matt Silverman should, too. A lineup card is boring. A color-coded lineup card, filled out in perfect gothic caligraphy is cool. Forget the robotic interview. This odd habit proves that Waka has a soul.

Raul Ibanez

Lastly, there's the matter of Raul Ibanez, who earlier today removed himself from the manager search, citing family reasons. There's been speculation that Ibanez, who has no managerial or coaching experience, might be hired as part of another, more experienced manager's staff. That would make a lot of sense, if the head guy were Wakamatsu, who, per the David Laurila interview, likes to bring in his own guys:
Waka: He gave me full rein to hire my whole staff, which is unheard of in today's game. He believed enough in me to allow me to do that, and I think that's paramount in any business venture, that you're allowed to bring in the people that you believe in and trust
The two, Wakamatsu and Ibanez, already have a history, as they were roomates in the minor leagues when Waka was a player/coach, and then rejoined each other for the World Series run in Kansas City last year. Wakamatsu was quick to give Ibanez credit for the turnaround:
"It was just the presence of him and a number of veterans that they brought in,’’ Wakamatsu said. "But Raúl was the leader of all that because of the length of time that he’s played the game, his experiences and the type of person he is.
If you liked Ibanez as a managerial candidate (profiled here), as the Rays clearly did, but were possibly scared off by his lack of experience, then Waka and Raul as a package deal may be just what you're looking for. I don't pretend to know what Ibanez's personal reasons for withdrawing his name are, so I can't say whether he'd still be a candidate for a lesser job, but it's an interesting consideration.

I know that this profile is not a ringing endorsement for Wakamatsu. He doesn't have a lot to recommend him, except that he's been consistently selected for major league coaching jobs, has a ton of experience at every level and among different types of organizations, from the Billy Beane A's to the Dayton Moore Royals.

Then again, is that really not a lot? He once got shoved by a bad player on a bad team. Maybe that's a mark against him, or maybe it means that's one mistake he'll never make again.

Stats-savvy Royals fans were frustrated with some of the decisions their manager made, and often leaned on Wakamatsu to right the ship.

But Yost's and Wakamatsu's young team played with verve and elan, and together with great athleticism and defense, that took them to the World Series. If Waka can replicate Yost's leadership without being completely stupid, he'll do just fine.