Letters of Intent
By Bob Elliott
BALTIMORE — What ever happened to that Don Wakamatsu guy?
You know, the Blue Jays bench coach under manager John Farrell for two years?
The guy some thought would be Farrell’s successor after Farrell bolted to the Boston Red Sox. Especially after Alex Anthopoulos said on Nov. 9, 2012 at the GM’s meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., that he wanted an “experienced manager, someone I know, someone I can work with.”
Anthopoulos knew Cito Gaston from his Jays days, and Frank Robinson from his time with the Montreal Expos. So that left Wakamatsu, former Seattle Mariners manager, as the favorite to be the 13th manager in franchise history.
And 11 days later, John Gibbons, the 10th manager in franchise history, was re-hired.
Wakamatsu is a bench coach with Ned Yost’s Kansas City Royals, who opened the best-of-seven, American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles Friday night at Camden Yards. His surprising Royals are in the hunt, and he’s a hot name on the managerial circuit again.
“The longer (the Toronto vacancy) went, I didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Wakamatsu in the third base dugout Thursday afternoon. “I asked Alex after (Gibbons was hired) and he was honest. He said we didn’t have a special relationship.
“I’d been in meetings where he’d ask about John and the coaching staff about a player and I’d give my opinion.”
Wakamatsu’s next option was to follow Farrell to Boston along with Jays coach Torey Lovullo, who became the Red Sox bench coach.
“They already had a catching guy in Gary Tuck and needed someone either to coach first or third, but they needed an infield guy,” Wakamatsu said. “John and I talked, but I wasn’t a fit.”
Farrell took Brian Butterfield with him.
So, Wakamatsu landed on his feet with the New York Yankees as a pro scout. He was manager Joe Torre’s bench coach in the spring of 2013 since Tony Pena was away managing the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Then, he was assigned nine big-league teams to scout, as well as taking a look at the Yankees system from top to bottom.
“That was probably the best thing that ever happened,” said Wakamatsu, “That’s a totally different process when you get in that room. When you are in uniform they ask your opinion on one player. Upstairs, they ask about six guys and talk length of contracts.
“Baseball has it backwards. Usually you play, coach and then manage. Managers should know how to scout, know how to deal with the media.”
Wakamatsu was asked to interview for the Houston Astros vacant managerial job. They wanted him to fly in on an off day for an interview. He didn’t think it would be in the “best interests of the Royals to leave the team.” Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks have asked for permission to interview him when all is said and done.
“What a wonderful sounding board that would be, all that Tony has accomplished,” Wakamatsu said.
As the M’s manager, he approached La Russa during an inter league game in 2010 and asked him his No. 1 goal each spring. La Russa said it was to convince his players to “take the umpires out of the game, to ignore them.”
Also on the Arizona radar are Rangers’ interim manager Tim Bogar, coaches Chip Hale (A’s), Lorenzo Bundy (Dodgers), Sam McEwing (White Sox), Sandy Alomar (Indians), Jay Bell (Reds), ex-Colorado manager Jim Tracy, along with internal candidates Turner Ward, Andy Green and Phil Nevin.
Royals GM Dayton Moore called Wakamatsu about the opening because Moore had “always respected the way he handled himself as a person.” Next was a trip to Yost’s ranch in Georgia where the manager and the interviewee went deer hunting with a bows and arrows.
“Yeah, it was be careful where you aim,” Wakamatsu said jokingly.
Royals elder statesman/line drive hitter Raul Ibanez, 42, was a teammate of Wakamatsu’s, then a player-coach at double-A Port City in 1996.
“He’ll manage again someday soon,” said Ibanez, now in his 19th season. “I owe my career to him.”
His career? Wow.
Ibanez was recovering from a broken wrist as Wakamatsu was leaving a workout facility in Arizona. The young player asked the older man for advice.
“He didn’t know me, I’d never worked out before, but he took 15 minutes to show a young kid his workout,” said Ibanez. “I never equated hard work in the gym to success on the field until that day. I was the Mariners minor league player of the year (as a catcher). Then I was with him the next year and he taught me how to hit the other way.
“I hit an opposite field home run, went over, sat down beside him and said ‘OK, what have you got for me now?’”
What does baseball have for Wakamatsu next season?
Managing in Arizona?
Staying with the Royals?
“I firmly believe,” said Wakamatsu, “you end up where you are supposed to end up.”
– Follow Bob Elliott on Twitter @elliottbaseball