Return Of The Boys Of Winter

Despite putting dozens of players in the big leagues, the Hawaii Winter Baseball League folded in 1997. Now it’s back with four Oahu teams loaded with future stars. Games begin Sunday

Steve Murray
Friday - September 29, 2006
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Formerly with the Honolulu Sharks, Michael Barrett is now the Chicago Cubs’ backstop
Formerly with the Honolulu Sharks, Michael
Barrett is now the Chicago Cubs’ backstop

Groundbreaking ideas are often met initially with strange looks at the time of their inception, and so it was with the first incarnation of Hawaii Winter Baseball. Sure, the Islanders had been successful for nearly three decades, but that came to an end in 1987 when low attendance forced a move to Colorado Springs. This new venture, one that was to combine low-level minor leaguers from the U.S. and Asia, was an even bigger risk than the old Pacific Coast League team. Asian ballplayers? This was in 1993, two years before Hideo Nomo corkscrewed his way into American consciousness and 29 years since the last Asian athlete, Masanori Murakami, played in the major leagues.

At the time Major League Baseball just wasn’t interested.

Ichiro Suzuki honed his skills in Hilo before becoming a star in Japan and Seattle
Ichiro Suzuki honed his skills in Hilo before becoming a star
in Japan and Seattle

But with the success of HWB alumnae such as Ichiro Suzuki (Hilo Stars, 1993), Tadahito Higuchi (West Oahu Canefires, 1997) and So Taguchi (Stars, 1993) along with Americans Derrek Lee (Maui Stingrays, 1993), Jason Giambi (Kauai Emeralds, 1993),A.J. Pierzynski (Honolulu Sharks, 1997) and Todd Helton (Stingrays, 1995), the point was made. Professional baseball in Hawaii could work, and Japan was to become the new Dominican Republic.

The first incarnation of Hawaii Winter Baseball was an idea that was ahead of its time, and folded after the 1997 season. In the early ‘90s teams interested in looking outside of the U.S. for talent were confining their searches to Latin America and the Caribbean. Asia was hardly a second thought. Too far away. Too expensive to scout. Language problems. Cultural differences and a level of play were determined below MLB quality. But after Nomo went 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA for the Dodgers in 1995, baseball was forced to take notice. And although Hideki Irabu had a few good years in New York, it wasn’t until the United States got a look at a slightly built out-fielder from Kasugai, Japan, that the league really found interest in Asian imports. And you just know that somewhere on Oahu, the thought of “I told you so,” if not voiced, was allowed to wander through selected minds.

One of the first things fans will recognize in the revived HWB is the return of two big names in local baseball: Lenn Sakata, who will manage the Waikiki Beach Boys, and Mike Lum, the bench coach for the North Shore Honu. Sakata, for one, is excited to be back.

“It doesn’t get any better than this for me,” said Sakata, an 11-year major league veteran. “It’s not often you get to work in your home state and home city. I’m close to the people who run the league, the Kurisus. Anything I can do to help to expedite this or get this going again and bring baseball back to Hawaii, I’m all for it.”

Tadahito Higuchi now plays for the World Series champion White Sox
Tadahito Higuchi now plays for the
World Series champion White Sox

Sakata was an obvious pick for the league. Not only is he a local boy with big-time credentials, he is also the current manager of the San Jose Grizzlies, the San Francisco Giants’ Class A farm team. HWB chairman and chief executive officer, Duane Kurisu, is a minor owner of the San Francisco Giants (as he is of MidWeek and our sister publication, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin). In fact, Sakata is the winningest manager in Grizzlies’ history and in 2005 he led his team to the California League championship. But while each team in the league boasts professional managers and coaches, Sakata differs from his counterparts in that his resume includes a stint in Japan - an experience that should come in handy as 10 of the 12 professional Japanese teams are taking part in the league.

“It definitely helps,” he says, “because you have some awareness of how they think.”

And that’s important in a league that plays only a 40-game season. There isn’t a lot of time to get familiar with the players.

“It’s hard when you only have four days of practice. Getting to know your players in such a short period of time is virtually impossible because, for me, it takes me half a season to get to know my own players. It’s one of those things where you try to get everyone a chance to play. That’s what it’s about. What you have to do is maximize the time you do have and hopefully give everybody a chance to play.”

The short nature of the season and the lack of practice time can work in the players’favor. Ichiro Suzuki has said that Hawaii Winter Baseball helped him dramatically because it forced him to be self-sufficient. It worked. Suzuki went back to Japan and hit .385 for the Orix Blue Wave.

Former Stingray Helton was even more positive about his experience. Speaking to, Helton said, “As a first-round draft choice, I was supposed to be good, but I stunk at Asheville. Playing in Hawaii gave me a real good opportunity to get away and just to focus on base-

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