Veterans Day a time to reflect for Royals' Wakamatsu
NOV 11, 2013 12:12p ET
It is a time each year when he can reflect on what his family endured during World War II, and how their determination and courage provided an opportunity for him to create a life he now cherishes.
"I feel a sense of honor for what they had to go through," Wakamatsu says. "The sacrifices they made .... it's a special feeling."
Wakamatsu's grandparents, Ruth and James, were two of approximately 100,000 Japanese-Americans who were taken from their homes in 1942, a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, and imprisoned for three years in internment camps. Those camps were created out of a national fear and panic that Japanese-Americans were divulging war secrets to Japan.
In these internment camps, prisoners were questioned by the government about their loyalty to the United States. Adult men later were given the option of remaining in the camps or signing up for the military. In fact, three of Wakamatsu's uncles served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, known as the most decorated regiment in the history of the U.S. military.
"To think that those men fought for our country over in Europe, fighting the Germans," Wakamatsu says, "and all the while they did that, their families are imprisoned back here in internment camps."
That Wakamatsu, 50, even learned of his family's history during World War II is somewhat of a fluke. When he was about 23, he recalls, he just happened to be in his parents' kitchen when his father, who was born in the Tule Lake, Calif., internment camp, opened a letter from the government.
It was a reparations check for $20,000.
"I just noticed his reaction," Wakamatsu recalls. "He looked at it and just tossed it aside disgustedly. I don't know what he ever did with that check."
Watching his father that day, though, made Wakamatsu determined to find out about his family's history.
"I had no idea what had actually happened," he says. "It was something no one in my family ever talked about. Not once. My grandfather never spoke of it, and I'm sure he never spoke much about it to my father. I just think there was too much pride or hurt or pain to bring it up.
"So, I decided I would do some digging. I started with really no knowledge of it all. It's not like they taught us about that part of the war in history class."
Wakamatsu was wary of going directly to the source -- his grandparents -- for fear of resurfacing the pain they seemed to have successfully buried as they built new lives after the war.
But he did learn through his parents about his three uncles who served in the 442nd.
"But even then, there are no real records anywhere," he says. "There was so much hate in this country toward Japanese-Americans because of Pearl Harbor. I even found out that there was a town in Texas that refused to honor the names of the dead Japanese-American soldiers who died in the 442nd.
"That is just hard to imagine. But it was a different time."
It wasn't until many years after that day Wakamatsu witnessed his father tossing aside the reparations check that he finally built up enough courage to approach his grandmother about their family's history. He got some answers, though the details were sketchy.
"I learned that the government just came one day and started rounding up all Japanese-Americans," he says. "And at first, because they didn't have enough internment camps built, they had to house everyone from Hood River (Oregon), where my grandparents lived, at this horse track in Portland. They had to live in the stables for a few months.
"Then they got transferred to Tule Lake in California, and before it was over they also got transferred to Arkansas and Colorado. And basically, all the government gave them was a cot and a blanket for each person. That was it."
Wakamatsu also learned that when the war ended and his grandparents returned to Hood River, the government had leased their land to someone else.
"For a while, they had nowhere to go," he says.
Eventually, though, his grandparents recovered their land and built a makeshift house with their own hands, starting, ironically, with a wall of wood they took from the barracks they lived in at their last internment camp.
"I think what I'm most proud of is the fact they just moved on with their lives," he says. "They didn't just give up. My grandfather built a house he lived in for 70 years and raised three sons and a daughter.
"They started over and built lives."
By doing so, Wakamatsu's grandparents paved the way for future generations of the family. Wakamatsu thinks of that often as he looks back on his life in baseball.
"All that I have done is traced back to them," he says. "I had no hardship because of them."
Wakamatsu, a three-sport athlete growing up, was an All-Pac-10 catcher at Arizona State University before being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1985. He later was released by the Reds' organization and caught on with the White Sox, eventually reaching the major leagues in 1991, when he caught all 18 starts by knuckleballer Charlie Hough.
After that season, he was granted free agency and signed with the Dodgers. But he spent the next four seasons in the minors before retiring at age 33.
And that's when he started his coaching career, which peaked in 2008 when he was named Major League Baseball's first Asian American manager for the Seattle Mariners.
It was during his two years in Seattle that he caught the eye of Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
"I wouldn't say we had any type of association or relationship other than to say, 'Hi,' " Moore says. "But I had a lot of respect for him and for his reputation as a very smart baseball man."
It was also during that time that Moore did something that Wakamatsu recalls to this day.
"I got a letter from Dayton congratulating me on getting the job with the Mariners," Wakamatsu says. "I just didn't expect that from someone from another organization, so it kind of blew me away. I thought that was such a classy thing for Dayton to do and it always stuck with me."
Wakamatsu wound up being fired by the Mariners in 2010, but he quickly got a job as the bench coach for the Blue Jays, where he worked in 2011 and 2012. Last season, he worked as a scout for the Yankees, a job that brought him to Kansas City several times to oversee the Royals. His visits here also allowed him to renew his acquaintance with Moore.
And when Moore needed to fill an opening last month for a bench coach, he called Wakamatsu.
"I was so excited when I got that call," Wakamatsu says. "I told Dayton I really was interested but I had to be honest -- I really didn't know (manager) Ned (Yost) at all. So Dayton had me fly to Atlanta to hook up with Ned just to see how well we got along.
"So we spent two days on Ned's ranch just hunting and kicking back and talking baseball. That's my kind of interview. It went really, really well."
Wakamatsu can't wait to get started with the Royals and hopes he adds something valuable to the coaching staff.
"I think the bench coach is there to make the manager comfortable," he says. "The manager has to be able to trust his bench coach, especially with a lot of the day-to-day stuff. The manager's time, I know, is so tied up in other things, with media commitments and so on, that he really leans on the bench coach."
But as much as Wakamatsu looks forward to spring training, on this day, Veterans Day, he can't help but look back.
"It's such a day for me to reflect on the incredible legacy of my family and those generations," he says. "It has taught me to never take anything for granted. And I won't."
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email at email@example.com.
+ SHOW COMMENTS +