Baseball takes another step forward

Published 5:34 pm Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Don Wakamatsu is my new sports hero. You may not know about him, and you may not care, but he just ascended to a special place in my heart.

When the Seattle Mariners named the Oregon native their new manager Wednesday, they gave the game its first manager of Asian descent.

Obviously, I’m not Asian. But as a minority fan of a sport where minority players make up most of the rosters, this is a day I’ll tell my kids about.

American teams have slowly figured out that the myth about Asian players’ inability to hold up during a 162-game season is completely false. Players are not only physically able to compete, their mental discipline makes them far more dependable players in many respects.

Japan is a hotbed for talent, and the way the game’s popularity is growing in China, their players will eventually trickle onto rosters in the U.S.

Japan has given us Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Had it given us players like Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s all-time home run leader and an equally successful manager, the American game as we know it wouldn’t look the same.

For all I know, Wakamatsu might be a terrible Major League manager. He was the bench coach in Oakland last year and coached with the Rangers from 2003-07. That’s not what I call learning in a successful environment. His only managerial experience is four years in the Minor Leagues. Granted, he was the California League Manager of the Year in 1998.

He might be a terrible person. I’ve heard very little about his personal life, though sainthood has never really been a requirement for any job in professional sports.

But somehow I doubt some or all of that is the case.

Usually when people step out and become the first to do something, they want to minimize risk.

Seattle probably made sure they got an upstanding individual because if Wakamatsu guides a losing team or beats up a reporter, the public relations nightmare is going to be worse than normal.

I hate to say that, but people are still narrow-minded and the Northwest has a huge Asian population.

After all, Branch Rickey didn’t handpick Jackie Robinson because he was a good athlete. He picked Robinson because he was a good athlete who would keep his nose clean. But his success changed the game for the better.

Hopefully, whatever Wakamatsu does will in some measure do the same.