50 cents a pack: Lenn Sakata

Welcome to the first installment of a new series dedicated to my favorite baseball cards from my youth. Ah, the days when a pack of cards cost two quarters, and you even got a stick of incredibly stale, flavorless, pink gum to boot. Here we go...

At least one reader of my blog will appreciate my first selection: bespectacled, puny, utility infielder Lenn Sakata. Here's his 1984 Topps card, No. 578 in the set. As a kid, I gravitated toward Sakata -- or rather his card -- because there weren't really any other Major Leaguers who seemed more foreign to me. Sure, baseball had plenty of Latin players at that time, but for some reason they weren't as strange as Sakata. As an 8 year-old, I didn't know any better: I thought Sakata was Japanese. (We didn't have any Asian population to speak of in my podunk Illinois town.) But little did I know, Sakata was not Asian; no, he was Hawaiian, born in Honolulu. (We didn't have any Hawaiian folks, either.)

Anyway, ethnicity aside, Sakata was a fairly pathetic infielder. Sure enough, he's earned a spot on Futility Infielder's Wall of Fame. Sakata sucked at the plate, to put it mildly. He hit below the Mendoza Line his first two years in the pros with the Brewers before going 7-for-14 for the Brew Crew in '79. That earned him a trade to Earl Weaver's O's, where he enjoyed his glory days until he became a free agent following the '85 season. He signed with the A's for $75K and hit a whopping .353 in 34 at-bats, which garnered him a $50K raise from the Yankees the following season. (Yes, even in the mid-'80s the Yanks were over-spending.) He retired following the '87 season, a .230 career hitter.

Sakata was truly unspectacular at just about everything. For a light-hitting middle infielder, he didn't draw enough walks. Nor was he particularly adept on the bases, owning a modest career success rate of 63% on stolen base attempts. He was a slightly below-average fielder, steady with the glove but lacking range. The silver lining: he was a career .333 pinch-hitter, with a robust .583 slugging percentage. (Of course, that was in the tiny sample size of 24 at-bats.)

I really only remember Sakata as an Oriole. I didn't follow the American League much as a kid -- hell, I still don't -- so my memories of him are limited to what I could learn from reading the backs of baseball cards, a common pastime amongst my friends. We liked to ask multiple choice trivia questions like, "In Canseco's rookie season of 1986, did he strike out A) 100 times; B) 140 times; or C) 175 times?" (Answer: C) Glancing at the back of Sakata's '84 card, I'm reminded of the good old days of baseball cards, when the manufacturers put ultimately useless nuggets of information on the card in addition to a player's stats. For example, in Sakata's case we learn that Lenn "clouted a 1st-inning homer at New York, 6-27-83." Do a little research, and you'll learn why they had to use such powerful language as "clouted." The homer was a solo shot; and the O's lost the game, 4-3. And this was one of Sakata's highlights, a meaningless solo home run.

Ah, but wait, the card also tells us of the 10th-inning, 3-run homer he hit on August 24, 1983. Now we're getting somewhere. Probably a game-winner, right? Yup. But there's more to the story. Click the above link to the Wall of Fame for the complete recap. But in short, Sakata entered the game against the Yankees as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning, then scored the tying run in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to 10th inning. Due to manager Joe Altobelli using up most of his roster to push the game to extra innings, Sakata had to move from second base to catcher -- the only time in his career he appeared behind the plate. (As part of the defensive realignment, left fielder John Lowenstein had to come in to play second, a position he hadn't played in seven seasons. Gary Roenicke, also a regular outfielder, was asked to play third.) You still with me? Good. I'll let Futility Infielder pick it up from here:

The makeshift infield wasn't much help as [Orioles] pitcher Tim Stoddard surrendered a leadoff homer to Jays DH Cliff Johnson and then a single to Barry Bonnell. Lefty Tippy Martinez entered the game in relief of Stoddard and promptly picked off Bonnell, who had taken a big lead against the inexperienced catcher [Sakata]. Dave Collins drew a walk from Martinez, and in preparing to challenge Sakata's arm, was picked off by Martinez as well. Willie Upshaw then beat out a single to Lowenstein. Yet again, Martinez picked off the runner, ending one of the most bizarre half-innings in major-league history. But the game wasn't over yet. Some guy named Ripken led off the Oriole 10th with a homer, tying the score.

A few batters later, Sakata came up with two outs and two on and promptly deposited a Randy Moffitt pitch into the stands, giving the O's the 7-4 win. It was one of just three homers he hit that entire season, but it was a fairly significant one as it kept the O's a half-game back of first-place Milwaukee, a game in front of the Tigers, two games up on the Blue Jays, and three games in front of the Yanks in a tight AL East race. The O's had posted a 10-12 record in August up until that game. From that point on, however, they went 29-12 to win their division by six games, then breezed through the playoffs to win the World Series. So, in a small way, you can argue that Lenn Sakata played a pretty big role in the O's fortunes that year.

Okay, enough about Lenn Sakata for one day, eh?


Listmaker said...

as the reader that you knew would appreciate this, thank you.

i look forward to more and hope that you find it in your heart to one day treat us to a floyd rayford recap.

i remember the three pickoff game quite well. amazing stuff.

Don Gerard said...

I appreciate the fact you unearthed a relic from the summer after my freshman year in college which was also the year after Bobby Murcer's final season.

thenoiseboy said...

Don, you are like, old. Are you old enough to remember Bobby Murcer's *first* stint with the Yankees, like when he was good? You probably remember him with the Cubs.