|Friday, May 31
History in the waiting
By Michael Kim
Special to ESPN.com
Wendell Kim stands out on the Montreal Expos' bench. Even at 5-foot-5. Even on one of the most racially and ethnically diverse rosters in Major League Baseball.
In an era of economic globalization and enlightened ideals, baseball long has been a pacesetter of racial and cultural change. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, coincidentally, in Montreal before making major-league history in 1947. Frank Robinson, now the Expos' manager, was the first African American to skipper a team (1975). And most recently, Hideo Nomo's arrival to the major leagues in 1995 ushered in an era of Asian athletes who are making an impact on professional sports beyond just the baseball diamond.
But with change being the evolving process that it is, Kim is left to sit and wait for the time to come when baseball is ready for its first Asian-American manager.
"It's my last goal," said Kim, the Expos' 52-year-old, workaholic bench coach who is the first Korean American to wear a major-league uniform.
In an initiative intended to encourage teams to pursue minority candidates for managerial and front-office positions, Major League Baseball requires teams to interview candidates of color. So far, the effect has been positive. Since commissioner Bud Selig's mandate three years ago, the number of minority field managers has more than tripled, from three to 10. None, however, are Asian American.
"Will there ever be an Asian manager? I don't know," said Sakata, a native of Hawaii who played on four teams during his 11 seasons in the majors. "That's not a goal of mine. If it ever happened, that would shock me."
'Wave 'Em In Wendell'
His long climb to the majors as a coach began in 1979 after the minor-league veteran was released by the San Francisco Giants in spring training. During his eight seasons as a coach in the Giants' minor-league system, the Honolulu native earned California League and Texas League Manager of the Year honors. That was followed by eight more seasons with the Giants as a first- and third-base coach.
Kim often works eight hours on game days -- before the first pitch -- going over advance scouting reports of opponents' pitchers and hitters.
"He's a very good baseball person. I lean on Wendell a lot," Robinson said. "He's well-organized and keeps attention to details.
"If I were ever in a position to hire a manager, he'd certainly be on the top of my list. And if I were even in a position to suggest a manager, he'd certainly be one of the guys I would certainly recommend."
Of course, the former star second baseman at Cal-Poly Pomona understands his dream job does not come with a great deal of security. Just this season, five managers have lost their jobs since the beginning of spring training.
"When you hear about managers getting fired like that, you have to wonder if it's better to coach," Kim said. "I guess you're hired to be fired, but I still do think I'd like to manage."
Already a footnote in history
Several months ago, Sakata vividly recalled for the Fresno Bee his memories and emotions of June 30, 1982.
"That day, I came to the park, I look at the lineup, and my name's not on it," Sakata said. "I see Ripken at shortstop, and as soon as I took two steps, I'm thinking, 'I'm not going to play anymore.' Ripken had already hit something like 20 home runs, and his average was rising, and I knew that was it for me.
"Looking back, who would have thought that this kid would come in and be that kind of player? We thought he'd play in the big leagues, but we never envisioned he'd be the type of player who would play every day.
"It's actually nice now because I'm tied to someone that's going into the Hall of Fame."
But Sakata, who ended up platooning at second base and helping the Orioles win the World Series in 1983, has no desire to make more history -- or become the answer to another trivia question. He claims he has no aspirations of returning to the big leagues as a coach or manager. He spent parts of 15 seasons in those roles in the minor leagues, as well as a four-year coaching stint with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan's Pacific League.
"What I felt was important to do was to pass along what I learned and give people I can reach or touch a chance to improve their game so they can go to the next level," Sakata said.
The time will come
"As our game gets more international, with more players and fans around the game, there will be more opportunity for Asians as managers and in the front office," said Major League Baseball spokesperson Patrick Courtney.
Kim, who fancies himself a magician, knows the cards are stacked against him this time. He realizes age and timing may prevent him from getting his shot at his dream job. Certainly, working in Montreal may not help his cause. Major League Baseball's contraction plans could eliminate his chances to become a baseball pioneer.
Already, since Opening Day, three minority coaches -- Detroit's Luis Pujols, Kansas City's Tony Peña and Jerry Royster of Milwaukee -- have become first-time major-league managers.
Still, that's an opportunity that has remained elusive for Kim.
"I understand the situation and if I don't get a shot, I'll still have great memories and look back on a good time in a game that I love," Kim said. "But I still think of it as my last goal."
Michael Kim is an anchor for ESPNEWS