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Originally published Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Local Japanese Americans applaud the Mariners' hiring of Don Wakamatsu

Don Wakamatsu's hiring as Seattle Mariners manager has local Japanese Americans expressing pride, but also concern about assumptions fans might make.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even before Don Wakamatsu was introduced as new Mariners manager, comments began pouring into Web sites and talk-radio stations suggesting that he was being considered only because of the team's Japanese ownership and its investment in Japanese players.

But several local Japanese Americans, while crediting the Mariners for having the courage to break barriers in hiring the first Asian-American manager in major-league history, suggest it would be folly to assume that Wakamatsu was hired for any reason other than his baseball credentials.

"Man, give the guy a break," said Rep. Bob Hasegawa. "More power to him."

Hasegawa, a legislator from Seattle who is Japanese American, said he doesn't know much about Wakamatsu's baseball résumé, but assumes the Mariners hired him because he is well qualified for the job.

One local Japanese American questions any assumptions by Mariners fans that Wakamatsu — the son of a third-generation Japanese American who was born at a California internment camp and an Irish-American mother — will be able to establish instant rapport with Japanese-born players, particularly Ichiro. The star outfielder's role in the clubhouse and relationship with teammates were scrutinized last season.

"The interesting challenge will be to try to explain to people the nuances and meaningful differences between Japanese people born in Japan like Ichiro and [catcher Kenji] Johjima, and Japanese people born in America like Mr. Don," said Tomio Moriguchi, retired CEO of the Uwajimaya grocery chain.

"In fact, it could be more of a challenge for the new manager because there will be expectations that will be impossible to fulfill."

As Wakamatsu faces the challenge of turning the Mariners into winners, Japanese Americans here plan to root hard for his success.

"There are a lot of Asian Americans who are absolute sports fanatics," said Beth Takekawa, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Her late father was a pitcher in the segregated Nissei leagues and bore the nickname "Dutch" after a major-league hurler.

"I think Don Wakamatsu will become an adopted son and a source of pride for all of us," she said. "He will find many instant supporters within the community."

Hours before Wakamatsu, 45, was introduced Wednesday as the M's new skipper, Moriguchi received a call from a friend in Fresno — Kerry Yo Nakagawa, an author and expert in the Japanese-American baseball leagues. Moriguchi was told Wakamatsu is "a great person and if the Nikkei community can do anything to help him feel comfortable in Seattle, to please do."

Added Moriguchi, "We look forward to that opportunity."

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At his first news conference as Mariners manager, Wakamatsu said he understands the significance of becoming a baseball pioneer.

"If I can set somewhat of a steppingstone for future Japanese Americans and just the equality in baseball, I'm glad to burden that torch," he said.

Scott Oki, a former Microsoft executive, local philanthropist and owner of several local golf courses, wished the Mariners' new manager good luck.

"The first African American elected President of the United States, now, the first Japanese-American manager in major-league baseball," Oki said. "Both are great picks. The Mariners have done well with Ichiro and Johjima. I trust Don Wakamatsu brings a similar work ethic and passion for the game."

Times staff reporter Larry Stone contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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