Gone are the large, owl-like glasses he wore as an Oriole. LASIK eye surgery cleared Lenn Sakata’s vision 10 years ago. But hindsight is 20-20, so Sakata, a utility man, has long realized the blessings of having played six years in Baltimore.
“Earl Weaver made me a major league player,” the 63-year-old Sakata said of the former Orioles manager. “He saved my career. In Milwaukee (Sakata’s previous team), all they did was tell me how crappy I was. I went six weeks there without stepping on the field. But Earl was a winner who used everyone to win the game. Just wearing the Oriole uniform made me feel like I was worth something.”
Worthy, he was. Eleven times as an Oriole Sakata drove in the winning run — eight times, in the seventh inning or later. Muscular and resolute, he seemed to thrive at crunch time.
“Sakata is a guy I might not pinch hit for in the ninth,” Weaver said. “He has guts. He’s not going to make the last out.”
Acquired in a trade in December 1979, Sakata proved his mettle off the bat. He doubled his first time up and, on his first swing as a pinch hitter, hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning to defeat the Brewers, 9-8. Jubilant fans begged a curtain call.
“I had no idea what that was; they didn’t have curtain calls in the minor leagues,” Sakata said. “The guys said, ‘Go out and stand in front of everybody.’ So I climbed the [dugout] steps, moved around a bit ... and went back in.”
As a spot player, he said, “You couldn’t relax. You were on a short leash. You had to play good every day or they’d go looking for somebody else. But I enjoyed the pressure. I adopted an acceptance of survival, knowing that if I couldn’t do this, I wouldn’t be in the big leagues.”
A natural second baseman, Sakata replaced an aging Mark Belanger at shortstop late in 1981 and stayed there until July of the following year, giving way to a young Cal Ripken Jr. All told, 1982 was Sakata’s busiest and most productive season: 343 at-bats, six home runs, 31 RBIs and a .259 average.
Though his playing time diminished, 1983 served up the Orioles’ World Series victory, and in August, the definitive moment of Sakata’s career. Locked in a 3-3 tie with the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th inning, and having run out of catchers, the Orioles handed him a mask and told him to squat. Never mind that Sakata hadn’t caught since Little League.
“In warmups, my throw to second base bounced twice,” he said. “Cliff Johnson was the first hitter and I thought, ‘I’m not going to get hit by this guy’s backswing,’ so I set up 3 feet behind him. The umpire (Russ Goetz) didn’t know where to stand.”
Johnson hit the first pitch for a home run. Sakata winced at the crack of the bat.
“It was like a cannon had exploded in my ear,” he said.
On the next pitch, the Blue Jays’ Barry Bonnell lashed a single to center. The Orioles changed pitchers, summoning Tippy Martinez, their All-Star stopper.
Sakata met him at the mound.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” the catcher confessed.
“Well, can you catch a curveball?” Martinez asked.
Who cared? Before his first pitch, Martinez whirled, and threw to Eddie Murray to catch Bonnell attempting to steal. The next batter walked, and in a rush to test Sakata’s arm, got picked off. The next hitter singled. He got picked off, too.
“Tippy didn’t have a real good move, but in their anxiousness to get to second base, all three runners got caught,” Sakata said. “I thought, ‘Are they stupid?’ If they’d done nothing, and stayed on base, [Toronto] would probably have gotten more runs because I’d have missed a ball, or something.”
Instead, Sakata proved the hero. Ripken’s homer in the 10th tied the game. Then, with two men on and two out, Sakata stepped in.
“My legs felt so heavy, I didn’t know if I could catch another inning,” he said. “All I wanted was to get a hit, but the pitcher hung one and I put it over the [left-field] fence.”
The Orioles won, 7-4. Sakata felt as if he’d dodged a bullet.
“I felt less euphoric than relief that the game was over,” he said. “It was almost fatalistic. I thought, ‘I don’t have to go behind the plate and get embarrassed anymore.’”
Fans took to Sakata, who was of Japanese descent. One sent him a T-shirt that read, “Samurai Second Baseman.” Born in Hawaii, he was the first Oriole from the 50th state and the 11th to reach the majors.
Sakata retired in 1987, settled in his native Honolulu and turned to coaching in the farm systems of four different teams, plus Japan. He left the game in 2014. A year later, he underwent surgery to remove a noncancerous brain tumor.
“They couldn’t get it all out, but it’s dormant,” he said. “Golf is my main physical activity now. That’s all that old men can do besides go to McDonald’s and drink coffee — which I refuse to do.”
If prodded, however, he’ll hold impromptu clinics on neighborhood ball fields with schoolkids who ask his help.
“That’s the part of baseball that I miss most,” Sakata said, “the interaction with the younger generation.”