Riddled by Mariners' struggles, Don Wakamatsu stays the same
Don Wakamatsu's smooth rookie season as a big-league manager has given way to a nightmare sophomore campaign.
Seattle Times staff columnist
A five-part Mariners series
The Seattle Times examines the Mariners' problems and where they go from here over the next five days:
Friday: The Mariners came into the season with a lot of questions, then got the answers wrong in April. Steve Kelley column
Saturday: M's fans, is your glass half full, or half empty?
Sunday: How did the Mariners get into this mess, and what do they do now?
Monday: By the numbers. The bad news is, it's actually worse than you think.
Don Wakamatsu, supposedly a new-school manager, admires the baseball lifers. He's amazed by Bobby Cox, an Atlanta institution in a sport that goes through managers like roughhousing boys go through Band-Aids. He idolizes Jim Leyland, the notorious cigarette fiend who is as gruff as a smoker's cough, not to mention 65 years old and still brimming with passion.
Wakamatsu dreams of being like these men, only a little less quirky. He dreams of having longevity in this perplexing, punishing game. The Mariners skipper dreams of establishing his own excellent standard. So, he's an eager sponge around great baseball minds. With Leyland and the Detroit Tigers in town this week, Wakamatsu sought advice. The advice was simple and familiar.
"Be the same," Leyland told him.
It's a standard Leyland line, but it's a philosophy easily forgotten. Be the same. Through 24 years of managing, through four teams, through pennants and resignations, Leyland has done that with impressive results. It's a meaningful lesson for Wakamatsu, a second-year manager already clinging to the caboose of a runaway season.
A year ago, Wakamatsu turned the words "belief system" into a mantra and helped the Mariners win an unexpected 85 games as a rookie manager. He was a savior with a direct, confident approach.
Now, he's the most second-guessed member of the team.
Lineups, pitching changes, his calm demeanor, stubbornly adhering to his once-refreshing belief system — he needs to carry a shield at all times. Never mind the good first impression he gave in 2009. It doesn't make him immune. Such is the life of a professional sports coach.
Wakamatsu isn't the problem, but he's not providing enough answers. Even after sweeping a two-game series with the Tigers, even after two invigorating eighth-inning comebacks, the Mariners are 18-28, floundering in the mediocre American League West and still healing from some much-publicized incidents of clubhouse dysfunction.
It has been the worst possible start to Wakamatsu's sophomore campaign. It has led to questions of his leadership. It has led to the ridiculous misconception that he lacks enough passion. But there is reason for hope: Wakamatsu remains the same. He heeds Leyland's advice.
Ask how he deals with losing, and Wakamatsu laughs and quickly replies, "Not very well."
He's Mr. Positivity most of the time, but you should see him in his private moments.
"It's a lot like Ozzie," Wakamatsu said of Ozzie Guillen, the foul-mouthed Chicago White Sox manager. "I sleep like a baby — a baby who wakes up every three hours crying and making a lot of noise. This game is 24/7. You take it with you everywhere.
"I think, from my standpoint, it's about looking at today. That's how I move on. Once it's over, you have no control over what happened. As a coaching staff, we keep grinding. We're asking, 'How can we get better? What aren't we doing? What can we shore up?' There's a lot of looking at ourselves in the mirror."
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik hired Wakamatsu for his three greatest traits: teaching, communicating and problem solving. Jack Z had to know there would be a learning curve for Wakamatsu, the in-game strategist. The skipper has made some mistakes there, certainly, but nothing he can't grow out of with experience. And let's be honest: In coaching, execution (or a lack thereof) can either make you a genius or a fool, and Wakamatsu can't control whether a player executes.
Ultimately, the challenge for him is to get the Mariners back to what they were in 2009: a team full of relentless underdogs that played with spirit, without worry. Where we often see a lifeless team, he sees a group of players with tattered confidence, wilting under must-win pressure. So that's why he has defended his team, even amid public cries that he's too soft.
"For me, when things go bad, the first person people look at is me," Wakamatsu said. "The players go, 'Is the manager giving up on me or this team?' If I start panicking, then who do the players go to? There's a time to light a fire, and there's a time to back these guys."
If you remember Wakamatsu's pointed words for Felix Hernandez last May, then you know he's not afraid to jump on a player publicly. In this case, however, he doesn't see a lack of focus or effort as the Mariners' problem. So, he chooses to trust his instincts. He chooses not to panic or shift blame. He chooses to be the same.
It's an admirable quality, but will his patience be rewarded? The dichotomy between Wakamatsu's rookie and sophomore seasons has been unfathomable. He's not a savior, as was suggested in 2009. He's not a dunce, as he has been inferred in 2010. He's just a developing manager.
"Somebody told me a long time ago that there are two types of people in this game: The ones that are humble and that ones that will soon be," Wakamatsu said. "You have to try to be thick-skinned. I think everybody who's in the public eye hears criticism. It affects everybody. But the bottom line is a lot of people don't have all of the information that we have. We have it, and we have to be honest with ourselves, make the adjustments that we need to make and trust what we are doing."
Unexpected crisis, same ol' Wakamatsu? You bet. Be the same. Can't have a belief system without a little conviction.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
email@example.com | 206-464-2277
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