Team and Family Motivate Lynchburg’s Luke Wakamatsu

As Spring Training drew to a close for 2019, the Cleveland Indians traveled from Arizona to Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, for a two-game set. Along with the expected Major League roster, the club took along a handful of players expecting to start their seasons in the minor leagues.

For one of these players, High-A Lynchburg’s Luke Wakamatsu, the two games would mark a special occasion. On Monday, March 25, Luke got to stand across home plate from his father while lineups were exchanged. The 6’3” tall, 185 lb. fifth-year professional would be playing against the team on which his father serves as bench coach.

“It was amazing,” said Luke. “I wanted to try and beat him so bad, so that I could talk smack to him.”

A big smile split his face as he recalled the events of that day. Though he would have seven at-bats over six different spring training games with the Major League club, this was the pinnacle of his spring.

Wakamatsu replaced shortstop Eric Stamets, who had driven in four of Cleveland’s ten runs that day. In his only plate appearance, he singled and came around to score – enough success to needle his father over the course of the upcoming season during their regular conversations.

“Just being on the same field as him was a blessing,” said Wakamatsu. “Hopefully someday I get to play against him in the Big Leagues, or play with him in the Big Leagues.”

A native of Keller, Texas, Wakamatsu recalled always wanting to be wherever his father was during the summer. His father, Don Wakamatsu, had an eleven-year playing career before moving into the coaching and managing ranks. It was during his father’s final year as a player that Luke was born.

“Traveling with him made me want to play the sport,” said Wakamatsu about spending summers with his father. “I always had a bat in my hand.”

During his early teenage years, his father was bench coach or third base coach for the Texas Rangers, before two years as the manager of the Seattle Mariners. The Rangers current manager, Chris Woodward, played for him in Seattle in 2010, so it was natural for him to keep Don on his coaching staff when he took over the reins for Texas this season.

As a kid, Luke enjoyed shagging fly balls during batting practice. Imagine catching fly balls off of the bat of Mark Teixeira or Ian Kinsler or Nelson Cruz when you are eleven or twelve years old. This experience helped him develop a respect and love for the game.

“My dad is a really good example of a teammate and a coach. He taught me what to do as a player and how to be a good teammate,” said Wakamatsu.

Foregoing an opportunity to attend Rice University, he signed with the Indians organization and began his professional career, first with a turn in the Arizona League in 2015, followed by 17 games with short-season Mahoning Valley in 2016.

“Talking with my dad, we decided to get started with my journey early, go straight into pro ball,” said Wakamatsu. “It [getting drafted] threw me off a little bit. I was going to go to college.”

This year, he wants to stay focused and work on developing his skills. As a more experienced player on the roster, he naturally takes on a leadership role.

“I try to be a leader, set an example for everyone on the field,” he said. “A lot of us have been in the Carolina League. We all kind of get together and try to pick everyone up.”

Though it is Luke’s fifth season in the Cleveland organization, the 20th round pick in the 2015 draft has struggled a bit with injuries. In both 2017 and 2018, he made trips to the injured list. Last season, his first with the Lynchburg Hillcats, injury ended his season prematurely after only 55 games.

With all of the veteran talent on the club, at least for a High-A Carolina League team, Luke is focusing his effort on maintaining his routines, and perfecting his game.

So far, he has struggled some at the plate, with nine hits in 57 at-bats (.158), but only two weeks into the season, a hot week can turn that performance around. Five of those hits have gone for extra bases, and in his other eight plate appearances on the year, he has drawn a walk.

Like his father, he started out as a catcher, until a growth spurt around 11 or 12 years of age.

“My hands were good behind the plate,” he recalled. “When I got taller and leaner, that is when I ended up going to shortstop.”

As a shortstop, he maintains a focus on what he can control, and works in the field every day to run through game situations with his double play partners, teammates Tyler Friis and Dillon Persinger.

“Approaching defense, I try to do it as game-like as possible. Run through every situation I can that might pop up in a game,” said Wakamatsu about his defensive practice.

This leads to more balanced game play, where communication in a game is clear, and they can take coaching for better positioning in the field to provide a solid defense behind the Hillcats pitching staff.

Staying healthy and getting on the field every day will be among his goals for this season, while developing a consistent routine that puts him in position to be successful on the field, at the plate, and in his career.

“Don’t worry about yesterday, or the day before,” Luke said regarding his approach to the game. “Take a team approach and try to get better every day. Focus on my routine, and being a team player and not really get too stressed about any situation.”

With that mindset, Wakamatsu looks to improve and continue a career that he hopes will last a long time and provide another opportunity to face his father across the diamond.

Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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