Lenn Sakata should have been one of those ballplayers that spent a few seasons in the majors, had a few timely hits, played decent defense, and then slipped out of baseball consciousness.
For the most part, that is the type of ballplayer he was. Mention the name Sakata to baseball fans today and you probably won't get much of a reaction. A few might think the name is familiar, and some diehards might remember seeing him play. Like so many background players, if he is remembered today, it is because of his role in some strange part of baseball history. Would anyone remember Bill Wambsganss today without his triple play? Would Brewers fans remember Rick Manning if he hadn't gotten the walk-off hit robbing Paul Molitor of a final chance to extend his hitting streak? So it is with Lenn Sakata...
Lenn Sakata was born in 1954 in Honolulu, Hawaii, and graduated from Kalani High School in that city in 1971. He played college ball as an infielder at Gonzaga University, earning All-Big Sky conference honors in 1973 and 1974 and second team All-American honors in the latter year. In 1974, he set a school record for RBI (68) that would stand until some guy named Jason Bay broke it in 1999. After his excellent 1974 season, Sakata was selected in the fifth round of the 1974 draft by the San Diego Padres but did not sign. Back then, baseball had a secondary draft in January for players who either did not sign or were not eligible to be drafted in June. In the January 1975 draft, the Milwaukee Brewers saw fit to select Sakata with the tenth pick. He began his professional career later that spring.
He began his minor league career about as far from Hawaii as he could get in organized baseball. He was assigned to the Brewers AA affiliate in Thetford Mines, Quebec. Once a hotbed of asbestos mining, Thetford Mines is about 120 miles (190 km) northeast of Montreal. Sakata, playing second base, shared the infield with future Brewer Jim Gantner. Both players hit .257 in the Eastern League, but only Sakata was promoted to AAA Spokane for the 1976 season. Back in his college town, Sakata hit .280 with ten home runs. He followed that up by hitting .304 in 1977 and earning a callup to the majors. When Sakata took the field in the first game of a July 21 doubleheader, Sakata became only the second Japanese-American to play in a major league game (the first was Ryan Kurosaki, a Cardinals pitcher).
Sakata struggled as a Brewer, hitting .162/.209/.214 in 53 games for Milwaukee. He started the 1978 season with Milwaukee, but a poor .192 average in 86 plate appearances earned him a ticket to Spokane. His final shot in Milwaukee came in September 1979 after he once again hit .300 in AAA. Seizing his chance, Sakata went 7 for 14 with two doubles in four games at the end of the year. The Brewers were so impressed they promptly shipped Sakata to Baltimore for righthanded reliever John Flinn. Flinn spent one unimpressive year in Milwaukee, but Sakata spent six seasons with the Orioles. After tearing up the International League for a month, Sakata was called up to Baltimore and hit his usual .190. He played a little shortstop for the first time in his pro career, however, and that earned him a spot on the 1981 Baltimore squad. He finally cracked .200 that year and had his best season in 1982, hitting .259/.323/.370 in nearly 400 plate appearances while playing second and short. In fact, he was the starting shortstop until a guy named Cal Ripken moved over from third in July. Undoubtedly Sakata would have started again at short had Ripken needed a day off. So much for that idea.
Sakata was once again a backup second baseman in 1983, but it was his appearance at a different position that year that remains memorable. Coming into play on August 24, the Orioles were 1/2 game behind Milwaukee for first place and one of four teams within 4 games of the division lead. Baltimore was hosting Toronto, the third place team. Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh with one out and the bases loaded, manager Joe Altobelli pinch-hit for starting catcher Rick Dempsey. The move didn't work and the Orioles didn't score that inning. After the inning, Lenn Sakata came into the game at second base and thus was around for the Orioles' ninth-inning rally. Sakata walked and later scored the tying run, but not before Benny Ayala pinch-hit for backup catcher Joe Nolan. The Orioles couldn't plate the winning run. Lacking catchers, the Orioles were forced to use Sakata behind the plate, outfielder Gary Roenicke at third, and outfielder John Lowenstein at second base.
The first batter, Cliff Johnson, hit a go-ahead home run and the second batter, Barry Bonnell, singled to center. That was it for pitcher Tim Stoddard, and lefthander Tippy Martinez came in to stem the tide. Eager to steal off non-catcher Sakata, Bonnell was promptly picked off first. Dave Collins then walked and, also eager to test Sakata, was promptly picked off. Willie Upshaw then hit an infield single to second. Following the example of his teammates, he leaned too far and was also picked off first.
In the bottom of the tenth, Cal Ripken tied the game with a leadoff home run. A walk, groundout, intentional walk, and strikeout set it up for Lenn Sakata to step in the box. Randy Moffitt, a pitcher Sakata had never faced in the majors, was on the mound. In this weirdest of games, what happened next only made sense. Sakata hit his second home run of the season to win the game.
Baltimore went on to win the division by six games and won the World Series in five games over Philadelphia. Sakata spent two more years as a backup second baseman in Baltimore, hitting .191 and 227. He had a couple last gasps in 1986 and 1987 with Oakland and New York, but he finished his career four hits short of 300 with a .230 average. Sakata went on to coaching, both in America and Japan, setting a record for most wins in the California League, and currently manages the Japanese Chiba Lotte Marines farm team.
Depending on how his coaching career progresses, Sakata may eventually be known for more than being behind the plate while Tippy Martinez set a pickoff record or being the second Japanese-American to play in the majors. No matter what Sakata does going forward, however, the August 24, 1983, game between Toronto and Baltimore (and Sakata himself) will be remembered for both dramatic moments and a trivia-producing extra inning.
More reading about Sakata and the game:
Lenn Sakata at baseball-reference.com
Lenn Sakata at The Baseball Cube
Box score and play-by-play of August 24, 1983 Toronto-Baltimore game
The Baltimore Sun remembers the game with some great quotes
Seattle Times about Sakata's current situation and view of baseball
Press release for Sakata setting California League wins record
New York Times article about Don Wakamatsu with some Sakata information
The Lenn Sakata baseball card image is from The Baseball Cube.