Barry Bonds and Lenn Sakata have something in common — they both set baseball records this summer.
When Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, cameras flashed, fog horns blew and fireworks popped.
But when Sakata won his 527th career California League game in June, passing Greg Mahlberg to become the most victorious manager in the minor league’s 66-year history, the long-time San Jose Giants skipper celebrated with a simple slice of post-game pizza before climbing aboard a rented bus.
Even when you’re the best minor league manager going, you still have to eat food served out of a box and make long-haul road trips to places like Bakersfield and Lake Elsinore on a weekly basis. And you have to do a whole lot more than just manage.
“You have to lug equipment, pitch batting practice, come out early for individual work,” said Sakata, 53, who led the Baby Giants into the Cal League playoffs this season, just as he has in each of his five seasons helming the club. “By the end of the summer, you start dragging.”
But Sakata, a Japanese American from Hawai‘i, isn’t looking for anyone’s sympathy.
“The flip side is that you really get to know these kids and can make an impact hopefully for the good of their careers. When I was a young player, there was no instruction in the minors. If you didn’t cut it, they would simply replace you with the next guy,” Sakata said. “I’m not doing this because I have to; I love the game. It’s still fun.”
Sakata entered the professional coaching ranks in the early 1990s after concluding an 11-season major league playing career as back-up infielder, spent mainly with the Baltimore Orioles (he was part of the Orioles 1983 world championship club).
Save a couple of seasons in Japan, Sakata has spent most of his post-playing career helming dugouts at the lowest ranks of the Giants farm system. He won Cal League titles 2001 and 2005. Sakata has also graduated a number of notable players to the majors, including current San Francisco starting pitchers Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Noah Lowry.
“He genuinely cares about his players, and you never have to doubt if he will stick up for you with an umpire,” said S.F. Giants relief pitcher Jack Taschner, who played under Sakata at San Jose in 2001. “But if he doesn’t like something you’re doing, he’s going to let you know it, and it’s going to be in his report to the big club.”
Despite his major league pedigree and obvious success at the minor league level, Sakata has never come close to sniffing a major league managerial position. He’s not holding his breath either.
“In the past, coaches would work their way up through a system. Now a new general manager comes in, he brings his own people with him,” he said.
In recent seasons, major league baseball has made attempts to diversify its managerial coaching ranks. Clubs are required to interview at least one minority candidate when a manager’s position opens. Though former major league catcher Don Wakamatsu, a Japanese American from Hayward, was a finalist for the Texas Rangers managerial position last winter (the spot eventually went to Ron Washington, an African American), MLB has yet to see its first skipper with an APA bloodline.
While agreeing minority hiring programs are long overdue, Sakata doubts APA candidates are the intended benefactors.
“Over the years, African Americans and Latinos have really been overlooked in these positions when compared to their representation on the field. We are seeing more Asian players now, but they are from Japan or Korea.
Historically there haven’t been many Asian American players in the big leagues. I remember we got really excited when Ryan Kurosaki, a pitcher from Hawai‘i, played for the Cardinals for six weeks in 1975. There haven’t been many others since. It would be great to see an Asian American get an opportunity to manage in the major leagues,” Sakata said. “But frankly, I don’t know if anyone really gives a damn.”