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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 15, 2002

Kalani's Sakata, Kurosaki major achievers

Learn about Hawai'i sports history and those who figured prominently in it in this feature. We'll ask a question Wednesday and present the answer in an in-depth profile on Thursday

Q: These two baseball players became the only Hawai'i high school teammates to reach the major leagues. Who are they, what high school team did they play for?

By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer

A: Lenn Sakata and Ryan Kurosaki were teammates on the Kalani High School team that won the state title in 1970. Sakata and Kurosaki also were the first pure Americans of Japanese ancestry in the American and National leagues, respectively.

Ryan Kurosaki, a fire department captain in Little Rock, Ark., played one season in the major leagues.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

During Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive games playing streak, Lenn Sakata gained notoriety through a response to a then-popular trivia question: Who was the last player to appear at shortstop before Ripken started his streak?

But there has been nothing trivial about Sakata's baseball career. After an 11-year major league career, Sakata is still part of the game as manager of the San Francisco Giants' triple-A affiliate in Fresno, Calif.

Still, trivia sticks to Sakata like dirt to a player's uniform. Consider this:

• Sakata and Ryan Kurosaki, were members of the 1970 Kalani High state championship baseball team, which has the distinction of being the last public school to win a team state championship from the Interscholastic League of Honolulu.

(The public schools joined the O'ahu Interscholastic Association in the fall of 1970.)

• They also are the only Hawai'i high school teammates to make it to the major leagues.

• Although there have been players of partial Japanese American ancestry to play in the majors, Kurosaki ('70), a right-handed pitcher, is recognized as the first pure American of Japanese ancestry to reach the big leagues when he made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League in 1975.

• Taking it a bit further, like Larry Doby was the first black to play in the American League, Sakata ('71), an infielder, is the first Japanese American to play in the AL.

But perhaps because the color line had been broken when Jackie Robinson entered the scene in 1947, Kurosaki and Sakata were virtually "color blind" about their places in history as Asian Americans in the national pastime.

Each said they never gave much thought about their ethnicity in a game that has recently welcomed Asian nationals with open arms, even though there are few Asian Americans in pro sports. Both said, like the rest of their teammates, they were just trying to climb the ladder to the bigs.

"When you get on the field, it's basically you're competing against the opposition," said Kurosaki. "I really didn't have much time to think about it."

Sakata concurs.

"I just wanted to play," Sakata said. "I never really thought of myself as being different. It was just a struggle to stay in the game."

While Kurosaki reached the big leagues before Sakata, the pitcher's career was limited to one season. He played five more seasons in the minor leagues — most of them at the Cardinals' double-A affiliate in Little Rock (Ark.) — before retiring after the 1980 season.

"We were always proud of him being the first (pure AJA to play in the majors)," Sakata said. "He was captain of our (Kalani) team. We looked up to him. He was the leader of our team."

Kurosaki, 50, has since settled in Little Rock, where he is a fire department captain. The idea of becoming a firefighter dawned on him during one of those long bus trips in the minors. He said teammates were discussing their future and firefighting came up.

Kurosaki met his wife in Little Rock and has planted his roots there.

"I enjoy and love Hawai'i," Kurosaki said while vacationing here in June. "But the cost of living at the time was just a tough time for us to move back and try to compete in this market. I enjoyed the people in Arkansas, Little Rock especially. I really had a good experience, really made some good friends."

Meanwhile, Sakata, who made his big league debut with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1977, would play for four organizations during his 11 big league seasons. Six of them would be with the Baltimore Orioles, including their 1983 World Series championship team.

When his playing career ended after the 1987 season, Sakata joined the coaching ranks. He has coached in the Oakland Athletics and Anaheim Angels organizations, as well with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball. Before being appointed manager of Fresno earlier this year, he managed the Giants' single-A teams the previous three seasons, taking each team to the postseason.

Because of his expedited ascent to triple-A — one step away from the majors — Sakata, 49, may be breaking ground to become the first Asian American big league manager. "I've been asked about this quite a lot lately," he said.

But Sakata said managing in the bigs is not a goal now. "I'm close, but I don't know how close I am," he said.

"I don't think about it," he said. "I just try to get by as best as I can. It's a struggle right now, just trying to get by this season. It's never been a goal of mine. I just like working with players at whatever level I'm at, hope to make an impact and set a good example for them. That's enough for me."

Of course, if the opportunity to coach or manage in the big leagues arose, he would jump at it. He was originally pegged to manage the Giants' double-A club in Shreveport (La.) before the Giants assigned him to Fresno.

"You don't turn it down," he said. "I had to accept this once-in-a-lifetime deal. I knew we were going to struggle, but you go where you're told to go. It's been difficult, but it's a learning experience so it hasn't all been negative."