The annals of the 2011 South Atlantic League tell us plenty about the prospects who passed through Class A that year.
Bryce Harper hit 14 home runs in 72 games at Hagerstown. Christian Yelich, a fellow future National League MVP, batted .312 for Greensboro. Manny Machado, one season from helping the Orioles end a 14-year playoff drought, posted an .859 OPS as a teenager with the Delmarva Shorebirds.
Ryan Minor was Machado’s manager in Delmarva. Over a decade earlier, Minor held the job title -- Baltimore Orioles third baseman --- that Machado was about to inherit.
Minor started 74 games at third base in his Orioles career, none more memorable than Sept. 20, 1998 -- the first time Cal Ripken Jr. didn’t play after 2,632 games in a row. In the iconic images of Ray Miller’s lineup card that night against the Yankees, it is Minor’s name written into the sixth spot, beside the scribbled-out RIPKEN.
Minor arrived to Baltimore amid extraordinary expectations, which his performance -- a career .177 batting average -- did not meet. Minor already was in his sixth season as a manager or coach by the time he intersected with the ascendant Machado in Delmarva. The 37-year-old skipper was younger than Ripken had been on the day the Hall of Famer removed himself from the lineup.
During one series that year, Minor found himself in a pregame conversation with the hitting coach from the Asheville Tourists, the Colorado Rockies’ South Atlantic League affiliate. Lenn Sakata was a reserve infielder over parts of 11 Major League seasons, becoming the first Japanese American to appear in the World Series when he won a championship with the Orioles in 1983.
As Minor and Sakata talked baseball, their most notable connection was understood but not explicitly mentioned: More than 16 years before Ripken yielded third base to Minor, it was Sakata whom The Iron Man replaced at shortstop in Baltimore.
Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game, which broke Lou Gehrig’s all-time record. Sakata was in the Baltimore lineup -- as the shortstop -- when The Streak began with Ripken’s start at third base on May 30, 1982.
Two months later, manager Earl Weaver shifted Ripken to shortstop -- and Sakata to the bench.
“When I walked into the clubhouse, the lineup was always by the doorway,” Sakata said in a recent interview with MLB.com. “I looked, and my name wasn’t in it. I looked at who was playing short. It was him, and it hit me like a hammer over the head: I’m done. I’m not playing anymore.
“He lockered next to me, pretty close. I told him, ‘You’re playing shortstop.’ It kind of was the end of what I thought was my career ... I knew it was best for the team. He was supposed to play, and I was supposed to be a guy coming off the bench. I accepted it. I felt like it was going to be better in the long term, which it was.”
Ripken was expected to be the Orioles’ everyday shortstop immediately after being called up in August 1981. Instead, he batted .128. Sakata replaced him.
“What he said about that was he didn’t like sitting on the bench, and that he would never come out of a game after that,” Sakata said, laughing. “And he never did.”
Ripken responded by winning the 1982 American League Rookie of the Year Award. One season later, he earned the first of his two AL MVP Awards, and the Orioles won the World Series. Sakata’s lone career postseason appearance came as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement in the Game 4 win over the Phillies.
“Watching him play, his intensity level and the mental strength he brought to the game went beyond stuff I even thought of,” Sakata said. “He’d call timeout [when he was batting] and start touching his eyelids. I always thought, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong with his eye.’ This happened frequently. We’d talk about it. He said he was always thinking about what pitch was coming next. If he got confused, he’d call timeout and start playing with his eyelid …
“Most of us were taught to see the ball and swing at it. He was always looking for the probability of what pitch was coming next … he had the advantage, because he grew up in a baseball family, where I didn’t. His father was a lifetime baseball man. Cal in the summer would go to these teams his father was managing. He just loved baseball.”
Sakata’s biography proves that he loves baseball, too. Born in Honolulu in 1954, Sakata grew up on Oahu at a time when few of his peers talked about aspiring to play pro sports. His maternal grandmother told him firsthand stories of life on the Big Island before the arrival of cars.
Sakata is a third generation Japanese American who grew up loving baseball but was unable to watch players with his background in the Major Leagues. In 1975, his Kalani High School teammate, Ryan Kurosaki, became the first American of full Japanese descent to reach the Majors; Sakata’s debut with the Brewers in 1977 made him the second.
Sakata’s big break came when he traveled to Roseburg, Ore., for the American Legion northwest regional tournament in 1970. The head coach at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore., spotted him there and offered a non-scholarship spot on the team.
“That’s what changed my life,” Sakata said. “Getting off the island was huge. If I’d stayed here, I probably would not have played college baseball.”
Sakata played one season at Treasure Valley, followed by two at Gonzaga, before the Brewers selected him with the 10th overall pick of the January 1975 Draft. Milwaukee dealt Sakata to Baltimore after the ’79 season, and he played for the A’s and Yankees before retiring in ‘87.
Sakata’s career as a Minor League manager and coach began the next season and continues more than three decades later. Sakata was set to manage the 2020 Salem-Keizer Volcanoes -- the Giants’ Northwest League affiliate -- before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the Minor League season.
Sakata was back on Oahu, managing the Honolulu Sharks of the 1993 Hawaiian Winter League, when a speedy left-handed hitter from the Hilo Stars hit a sharp two-hopper to second base … and hustled for a clean infield single. Sakata couldn’t remember seeing anyone run that fast on a baseball field.
“Who is this guy?” he wondered.
The answer: Ichiro Suzuki.
Sakata joined the Chiba Lotte Marines as a Minor League manager in 1995, for the first of his two tenures with the Nippon Professional Baseball club. As the son of an American World War II veteran, Sakata’s experience in Japan was deeply personal and emotionally difficult.
Sakata’s father, Melvin, fought in the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army in Europe. He died in 1977, not long before his son’s Major League debut.
“I was in no man’s land,” Lenn Sakata said of his time in Japan. “I couldn’t speak Japanese very well, or at all. I felt like I was really a foreign element. It did bother me. Even though they treated me nicely, I’m pretty sure they didn’t like me. This is going into even my own coaching staff …
“Even though I had some background to Japan, I didn’t feel I was comfortable in that environment … but I went to experience the whole thing, and it was a good learning experience from baseball and even from a cultural standpoint. It was good.”
Sakata was in his first year working in Japan when his old teammate’s steadfastness transcended sports and transfixed the nation on Sept. 6, 1995.
Among all the Baltimore starters for Game 1 of The Streak, Sakata said he was the only one who didn’t travel to Camden Yards and witness Game 2,131.
Sakata feared that if he took time away from the team, he wouldn’t be invited back.
“I kind of regret that I didn’t go back for that momentous occasion,” he said. “Maybe Cal’s [upset with] me still, because I was the only guy who didn’t show up, out of that starting lineup. But I did see the ceremony, and I did see the game. It was thrilling to see that he could do it.
“That’s the memory I’ll always have, that I was able to play with a great player like that. That’s something I use for coaching: I was able to play with seven Hall of Fame players in my career. I use that to envision what the players I’m coaching could become. Can they ever get to that level? That’s the greatness of coaching. Maybe you get to influence the next great one.”
Sakata is still trying to do that, 38 years after Ripken replaced him as the Baltimore shortstop. During the Giants’ abbreviated spring camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sakata saw one player whom he’d managed at Triple-A Fresno in 2002: Damon Minor, now the Giants’ Triple-A hitting coach.
By the way: Damon Minor is Ryan Minor’s twin brother.
Minor almost wasn’t Miller’s choice to play third base on Sept. 20, 1998, because he nearly opted for another career entirely.
Minor attended the University of Oklahoma on a basketball scholarship. The 6-foot-7 swingman played four seasons on the hardwood -- compared to three in baseball -- and didn’t pick up a bat and glove each year until after March Madness. He ranks seventh all-time in points for the Sooners. Minor scored 756 points as a junior, 10th on the program’s single-season list. Blake Griffin ranks just ahead of him.
Minor’s two-sport odyssey in 1996 is a story unto itself. In early June, the Orioles selected him in the 33rd round of the MLB Draft even though he hadn’t played baseball at Oklahoma that spring. Later in the month, the Philadelphia 76ers made Minor the 32nd overall pick in an NBA Draft known for producing four Hall of Famers in the first round: Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash.
Yes, the man who succeeded The Iron Man in Baltimore was part of The Answer’s draft class in Philadelphia.
Minor’s summer of ’96 included a 25-game stint with the Orioles’ Appalachian League affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va., as well as time in a Summer Pro League made famous by Bryant’s emergence as a 17-year-old star. Minor’s basketball future was sufficiently bright that he reported to training camp with the 76ers, intent on making the team and beginning a career in the NBA.
In Philadelphia, Minor competed alongside All-Stars Jerry Stackhouse and Derrick Coleman, as the media trained its focus on the magnetic Iverson. When Shaquille O’Neal played his first preseason game for the Lakers at the Great Western Forum, Minor was there.
“Being around those guys,” Minor said this month, “I was in awe for a little while.”
In the end, one future Oriole joined Iverson as the only ’96 draft picks to make the Sixers’ roster -- but it was Mark Hendrickson, not Minor. The 6-foot-9 Hendrickson played four seasons in the NBA, before debuting with the Blue Jays as a left-handed pitcher in 2002.
Had he made the Sixers’ roster, Minor was prepared to leave baseball behind.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It would have been one of those things where I probably would have just played basketball. The Orioles had given me the opportunity to play both, after I’d gotten drafted by Philadelphia. But if I’d made that roster, it would have been a much different story.”
Cut loose by the Sixers, Minor’s best remaining option was to sign a contract with the Orioles that precluded him from returning to basketball.
Today, Minor is grateful that he did.
He began the next Minor League season with the Delmarva Shorebirds. (Yes, the same team he’d eventually manage.) One night in April, a local radio station -- “Cat Country” WKTT-FM -- held an event at Perdue Stadium. A young woman, whose mother worked at WKTT, dressed up in a cat costume to help with the promotion.
The woman’s stepfather was a big college basketball fan. He asked the Shorebirds’ ex-Sooner star to sign a baseball for her birthday. He obliged. They started talking. Not long afterward, they had a first date at Macky’s Bayside Bar & Grill in Ocean City.
And that’s how Ryan Minor met his wife, Allyson. They’ve been together for 23 years and married for 20. They have two daughters, Reagan, 14, and Finley, 6.
“Right place, right time,” Minor said with a smile.
The Minors still live in Maryland, and Ryan continues to work in baseball. Like Sakata, he was poised to manage a team of young Minor Leaguers before the world changed. The Orioles didn’t renew Minor’s contract after last season -- part of many changes under new general manager Mike Elias -- and he took a new job with the Tigers.
Without batting practices to run and games to manage, Minor has spent more time at home this year than in any other of his professional life. He’s grilling a lot in the backyard. He enjoyed a picnic at the pool with his family on the Fourth of July.
While Ryan keeps up with Tigers’ player development personnel over video calls, Allyson, a kindergarten teacher, prepares lesson plans for distance learning.
Reagan has permanent cognitive deficits and isn’t able to communicate verbally, due to complications from bacterial meningitis diagnosed at 4 weeks old. She spent three weeks at Johns Hopkins Hospital while still an infant.
“She’s a sweet girl, she’s loving, she’s got tons of friends,” Minor said. “For me, every day, when I’m trying to help with breakfast, or get her dressed, it puts into perspective how fortunate a lot of people are, to be able to have a full life. She makes me, every day, be a better person.
“She’s going to be with us for the rest of her life. I know she’s a role model for her little sister, to be understanding, to be helpful, and to know that growing up with a sister like that is going to make her a better person, as well.”
Minor’s Major League career, which concluded with the Expos in 2001, is relevant to his current role, to the extent that it provides him with perspective to share with players.
All-Star appearances aren’t a prerequisite for impacting the life of a Minor Leaguer -- or anyone else, for that matter.
“When I started as a hitting coach, and then became a manager, you don’t realize how much you don’t know until you start doing it,” Minor said. “As a player, you think you know everything. ‘Why’s this manager doing that?’ Once you start doing it, you realize all the little things that it takes …
“Once I got to the big leagues [as a player] I tried to be something I wasn’t. I tried to live up to what everybody else wanted me to be, to be a superstar from Day 1. It just wasn’t going to be like that. I didn’t give myself a chance to develop. I didn’t give myself a chance to deal with the anxiety of trying to perform at a high level every day. There’s enough stress as it is. Once you put more undue stress on yourself, that makes it much worse.”
Asked what advice he’d give to the 24-year-old version of himself at Camden Yards that night, Minor said, “Make it a fun game, and a fun situation, every day. Do something you can to get better. Don’t try as much as you [did].”
While managing the Frederick Keys in the Carolina League last year, one of Minor’s first basemen had a familiar name.
Ryan was 5 years old when his father remained in the dugout as Minor took the field. Cal would visit Frederick often last season, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible.
“He’d sneak in and go sit in the suite,” Minor said. “I’d see him in passing on the way out. We’d have some conversations. He’d tell me what he’s doing with Ryan in the cage, if I saw him before batting practice. He’s got my phone number, and I’ve got his. If we see each other, we’ll talk. I’d see him in Spring Training a lot.”
Ripken, 27, posted a .720 OPS between two Baltimore affiliates last year.
“He’s a really mature kid, a strong-minded individual who’s able to handle [expectations] really well,” Minor said. “His dad’s such a cerebral type of person, able to talk with him about things like that, and prepare him for what he was going to go through.
“It helped [that Ryan] was drafted by the Nationals first, so he understood professional baseball and understood the expectations … playing a different position and being left-handed helped out a little bit, too. With the media scrutiny and abuse he was going to take from the opposing fans, he handled it great.”
The time Ryan Ripken’s dad didn’t play third base is an undeniable part of Minor’s baseball legacy. At age 46, he has placed the event in a healthy amount of perspective. He’s kept the glove he used that night. Maybe Cal will sign it one day, and Minor will hand it down to his daughters. But Minor also is focused on new goals, like coaching or managing in the Major Leagues.
All of it would have been impossible to anticipate a quarter-century ago, as Minor, then a senior in Norman, watched with his college roommate while Ripken took his lap around Camden Yards. Sakata was half a world away, working in a place that might’ve answered some questions about his family’s story while raising a few others he’s still contemplating.
Nine years ago, they were together at a Minor League ballpark in Delmarva, unexpected baseball lifers from Oklahoma and Hawaii.
Forever, they are linked by a Streak that ended more than two decades ago -- and endures today.