Forgotten Player of the Moment – LENN SAKATA
(by ED AGNER)
Oh, fame…err…umm…wait. This is about Lenn Sakata. Scratch the word “fame.” Howzaboot – oh, the ways one car rise from mediocrity to some semblance of semi-notoriety. Lenn Sakata is basically semi-remembered for 3 things –
- He was the first Japanese-American to be a position player in the major leagues
- He was the guy who replaced Mark Belanger as Orioles SS, before himself being replaced by Cal Ripken Jr.
- The August 24, 1983 game of his life
Also, he wore glasses and looked more like an engineer than a baseball player…which may or may not have lead to this exchange…
ED: now I really must work on the Sakata piece
ED: do you even know who Len Sakata is?
BILL: yeah, he played the Asian nerd in revenge of the nerds
Yes, I do realize that I may be giving Bill far too much credit in knowing what Lenn Sakata looks like. But there ya go.
Anyway, being semi-notorious for those three things is three things more than I am semi-notorious for…unless you count that fantabulous mullet I had in college. So maybe, I’m only two short. Oh, and I know Bill Barnwell before he was a star on morning TV. So just one thing short, really. Well, Phil is bound to start his shooting rampage soon, so really, we are kinda equal. Except I am bigger and not Asian. But otherwise…thisclose.
First off, before we get into the good stuff…let’s touch upon why the hell Lenn Sakata even had a big league job to being with. For that, I have no answer. His closest career comp is Manny Alexander. Yeah, Manny Alexander. That Manny Alexander. Why Manny Alexander had a big league job is…well, that’s for a Bill FPOTM. Feel free to ask for that next NFL season. As for our boy, Lenn…hmm…let’s see, he hit nothing, had below average range factor and wasn’t especially fast. But he was a Japanese-American so…umm…he could do their math? I’ve got nothing, really. But remember, all hate mail should be addressed to Phil.
Which leads me to Earl Weaver – Oriole manager. Just a couple of months ago I re-read Sir Earl’s Weaver On Strategy for the first time in years. And while his theories, of course, makes the statheads harder than Chinese Algebra, putting said theories to practice sure didn’t always fly. Earl loved his big, slow footed sluggers who could put a ball over the fence. Hardly, Sakata. He loved fast guys who could cover lots of ground. Again, no dice with Sakata. He liked his platoon people who could be used sparingly to bash pitchers who threw with the opposite hand. And yet again, after looking at the splits, we have no match with Sakata.
Which leads me to another book I just read recently – Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders (Hey, I didn’t pay for it. Honest.), in which Neyer points out that the 82 Orioles may have lost the AL East title because they gave too much playing time to Glenn Gulliver. Really? Giving Glenn Gulliver 145 AB’s in which he put up a .363 OBP (granted, with no pop and at 3B) is worse than giving Len Sakata 343 AB’s at SS (initially, until Earl wised up and replaced Sakata with Ripken) and 2B in which he put up a .323 OBP? (Of course, to be fair, Ripken was pretty not good at that stage and the entire Oriole’s OF, sans the Gary Roenicke/John Lowenstein platoon and the exquisite Ken Singleton, was a complete disaster too.) OK. Whatever floats your boat. Seems to me, that Earl was clearly losing his touch at this point and giving away far too many outs to guys who were clearly fungible. But who am I to call Earl Weaver a non-genius?
Anyway, back to Sakata. Yeah, clearly a guy to be forgotten except for the trivial nature of his sorta-fame based on ethnicity and him being the place holder at SS between Belanger and Ripken. Oh yeah…and the game of his life in 1983. See below for links to the full recap and box score…but, essentially, in a nut-shell – Orioles-Blue Jays in old Memorial Stadium. Sakata is forced to catch thanks to a strange bit of overmanaging by then-Orioles Manager Joe Altobelli (honestly, you have to check out that box score. I am certain Tony LaRussa reads that pantsless.). Cliff Johnson starts off the Blue Jays 10th inning with a homer, Barry Bonnell follows with a single. The Orioles bring in Tippy Martinez to relieve. Martinez then picks off Bonnell. Dave Collins is walked…and is picked off first by Martinez. Willie Upshaw then singles…and is picked off first by Martinez. Yep, the Jays got all ready to steal off Sakata that they started playing like a little league team. The O’s then come to bat in the 10th – Cal Ripken starts things off with a homer to tie the game. Two more O’s get on and our boy Len Sakata comes to bat with one out and the game tied. Of course, you know where this is going – Sakata hits one of his 3 homers on the season off of Billy Jean King’s brother to win the game. And, for a week in 1983, Len Sakata is a household word.
And that was probably where Sakata should have just retired – though, of course, the O’s went on to win the World Series that year, so maybe not – as the rest of his career was uneventful. He stuck around until 87, finishing up with the A’s and Yankees, then went on to coach and manager in the Chiba Lotte Marines organization before coming back to America to coach and manage in the Giants organization…where, presumably, he is teaching the catchers to let the pitchers do all the work for them or something.
Len Sakata: The Middle Man