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Wakamatsu leaves graciously

Don Wakamatsu was fired Monday. (Associated Press)
Don Wakamatsu was fired Monday. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Less than two years ago, new general manager Jack Zduriencik called his hiring of Don Wakamatsu “the crown jewel” of his Mariners’ remodeling.

He got rid of the jewel Monday.

Zduriencik fired his first big Seattle hire a week after he had proclaimed “Don’s our manager.” The move came hours before a game, following a rare series win and with just weeks left in a season lost long ago.

“I was a little surprised by the timing,” Wakamatsu said Tuesday in a telephone interview, a little more than a day after the last-place Mariners, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001, fired him and three coaches. “But I thought there was probably a move coming.”

The 47-year-old Wakamatsu said he’s not bitter about anything – even though he lasted only one great season and about half of a terrible one.

Wakamatsu, who was still in Seattle, thanked the Mariners for giving him his first job as a major league manager (he had not managed above Double A before). He thanked his coaches. He thanked Seattle’s fans. He even thanked the media.

He also said he can’t wait to get home to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and watch his sons play football starting late this month.

First he’ll stop this week in Hood River, Ore. His birthplace is still home to his grandparents, James Wakamatsu and wife Ruth. Now in their early 90s, they were hardworking fruit growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley before the Japanese Americans were sent to a World War II internment camp. As a child, Wakamatsu lived in the barracks in which his grandparents were once interned.

He can take more time on this trip.

“The organization makes the decision to move on, and I respect that. I respect that they gave me the opportunity,” Wakamatsu said.

“My whole thing is that I will have a measure of disappointment in not being able to (win).”

Wakamatsu declined to discuss the events that turned him from a first-year wonder into a second-year dismissal, saying “I really don’t want to get into any of that stuff.”

The Mariners expected Wakamatsu to lead them into the postseason following a 24-win turnaround in 2009.

But they were a divided mess and 28 games under .500 when they canned the majors’ first Japanese-American manager.

Wakamatsu thinks he will get another chance in the big leagues.

“There will be opportunities in the future, and I look forward to that,” he said.

The Mariners hired him in November 2008 as a relative unknown, a former bench coach and third-base coach in Texas and bench coach for Oakland.

His task was to reverse the culture and performance of a team that in 2008 became the first to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll.

He succeeded in 2009. Ken Griffey Jr. bonded with Wakamatsu and transformed the team’s previously fractured, bickering clubhouse. Griffey even had ties made with Wakamatsu’s likeness for the team to wear on a midseason road trip.

Seattle went from 61-101 to 85-77. Fans gave the team a roaring send off on that season’s final day. Griffey and Ichiro Suzuki even got carried from the field on teammates’ shoulders.

Move ahead to this season and Griffey – quitting in early June with a .200 average and no homers. The Mariners finished July 6-22, tied for their worst month in history. Now Triple-A manager Daren Brown is Wakamatsu’s interim replacement.

“I understood,” Wakamatsu said. “It all comes back to the manager and wins and losses, and it’s unfortunate. We set with a year and a half ago to build something here long term.

“There’s a lot of disappointment, certainly on my part. The club was not playing up to the expectations of what should be the caliber of baseball in Seattle.”