The Boys Of Winter Are Back
Friday - July 07, 2006
Duane Kurisu puts his money where his heart is. The Honolulu businessman announced the return of the Hawaii Winter Baseball League with a 40-game season set to start Oct. 1.
The previous incarnation of the league was an aesthetic success on the field, but a financial albatross in the business office. This time around, Major League Baseball will pay 100 percent of the coaches’ and players’ salaries as contrasted to the 10 percent they picked up last time, giving the league a real chance at economic viability.
But Kurisu’s goal has never been to make money; he’d just like to avoid losing a ton of it.
“If we break even, I’ll be happy,” says Kurisu, who serves as chairman and CEO.
Kurisu’s love for the game began in his childhood in Hilo and has grown ever since.
“I have a passion for the game,” says Kurisu. “The first time around took a tremendous toll, but when it was gone, I really missed it.”
This edition of HWB features four teams. Two of them, the Honolulu Sharks and the Waikiki Beach Boys, will play home games at Les Murakami Stadium. The other two, the West Oahu Canefires and the North Shore Honu, will be based at Hans L’Orange field in Waipahu. The players will come from Major League organizations as well as China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
One aspect of the league that became obvious the last go-round was the ability to serve as an international bridge through sports. Kurisu, always keen to cement Hawaii’s role as a gateway between the Mainland and Asia, had been surprised at how strong the potential was for that bond.
“When we introduced the league in 1993, it was a baseball first,” says Kurisu. “But it didn’t take long to see that it could go beyond baseball. The sense of a truly international game is part of what I believe in. It’s really a perfect fit.”
What did take time to emerge was the role the league would have in developing terrific baseball players - 136 HWB players who filled HWB rosters between 1993 and 1997 made Major League teams. Ichiro Suzuki and Jason Giambi played here. Other prominent alums include Tadahito Iguchi and A.J. Pierznski of the Chicago While Sox, Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies, Michael Barrett and Derrek Lee of the Chicago Cubs, Adam Kennedy of the L.A. Angels, Mark Kotsay of the Oakland A’s, Preston Wilson of the Houston Astros and Randy Winn of the S.F. Giants.
It’s easy to see why the players love to play in Hawaii. Sensational weather, political stability, friendly people and an infrastructure used to accommodating visitors all contribute to a positive experience.
And the track records and future success of past participants don’t hurt either.
For the fans, there will be numerous attractions. Not only will they see a level of baseball equal to Single A or Double A, they will have the small-park, intimate feel and promotions associated with increasingly popular minor league ball. Ticket prices make it possible for whole families to enjoy a night at the ballpark without breaking the bank. Kurisu has assembled a support team that has aggressively sought Japanese sponsorship, and will have a television component both at home an in Asia. And Major League Baseball has come to appreciate the upside of HWB in a way that it had not in 1997 when the league was shut down.
“In many ways we were ahead of our time,” says Kurisu. “Now I believe is exactly the right time. We’re hitting the sweet spot.”
Part of Major League Baseball’s coming around had to do with attempts to establish winter baseball on the Mainland. Two leagues were attempted, one each on the East and West coasts; each failed after just one season. HWB is back, and its future is as bright as the splendid new logo and uniforms. Yes, you’ll be able to buy logo wear shortly.
For more information, check out http://HawaiiWinterBaseball.com
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