When Lenn Sakata watched the San Francisco Giants win the World Series last fall it was with mixed emotions.
A lot of the Giants were his guys, players he’d helped to the major leagues when he managed the high Class A San Jose Giants — about 10 of them, including some of the big-name stars, like Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain and Brian Wilson.
But he was no longer with the Giants system, not retained after his ninth season in 2007 despite having set the record for most managerial wins in the California League.
In fact, Sakata was completely out of pro baseball, home in Hawaii. In his heart, he could take genuine satisfaction in helping build a world championship team. But of course it was nothing like when he played with the 1983 Baltimore Orioles who won the World Series.
"Yeah, it was nice to know that at some point they were in my life, kind of gratifying knowing how much they improved. They were good people and I always appreciated the effort they gave. It was like having your kid succeed," Sakata said in a phone interview last week.
It would have been a face-to-face meeting, perhaps at Kahala Park, where the Kalani graduate spends his time coaching young local players when he’s home. But Sakata, 56, is back in pro baseball, at spring training in Arizona. He was hired to be the hitting coach for the Asheville Tourists, the Colorado Rockies’ Class A team in the South Atlantic League.
After leaving the Giants, Sakata spent two seasons as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines’ farm team. When Marines manager and Sakata’s friend Bobby Valentine returned to the U.S., so did Sakata.
He thought he might be done after 35 years in professional baseball.
"I started thinking about doing something completely different," he said.
BUT PRO BASEBALL wasn’t done with Lenn Sakata.
When he managed the Waikiki Beach Boys in Hawaii Winter Baseball in 2006, about a third of Sakata’s roster were players under contract with the Rockies. He developed good rapport and stayed in contact with people in the system. It led to a phone call last December with a job offer.
"I had nothing going, and I had a friend in their system," Sakata said. "It’s a good opportunity."
And he would be among the first to experience the Rockies’ new spring training facility described by those who have seen it as opulent and jaw-dropping.
Salt River Fields at Talking Stick sounds like the name of a country club. And, in some ways it resembles one.
According to Sakata, the place is as much about convenience and community as it is luxury. All of the Rockies — from the biggest major league star to the lowest minor league prospect — share first-class workout and dining facilities.
"The way it’s set up makes you feel like family, and that you’re all rowing the canoe in the same direction. It’s a fabulous new complex. Unbelievable," Sakata said. "It’s nothing to revolutionize the way baseball is taught, but it’s like a baseball school. Things are easier because all of the staff is all here in one place. If you have a question about something, everybody’s right here."
THREE PLAYERS with local ties are trying to make it with the Rockies system this spring. As it always is in spring training, the situation is very fluid. But for now outfielder Bronson Sardinha (Kamehameha) is listed on the Class AA Tulsa roster, first baseman Kala Ka’aihue (‘Iolani) is slated for Class A Modesto, and pitcher Kaimi Mead (Roosevelt, Hawaii Pacific) might be assigned to start the season with Sakata in Asheville.
There’s nothing Sakata likes better than to help a guy from Hawaii climb the pro baseball ladder, whether it be in North Carolina or at Kahala Park.
"My job is to teach the players. It’s not about me getting back to the major leagues," said the man who played in the bigs for 11 seasons. "If it doesn’t happen, I’m good with that. I can walk away knowing I was pretty good at what I did.
"But anything’s possible."