Baseball in paradise
Winter ball could be returning to sun-splashed Hawaii
By Jim Street / MLB.com
Todd Helton is one of many who honed his skills in Hawaii.
For most Minor Leaguers, the season ends the first week of September, but a "bonus" season in Hawaii could be on the horizon for some Class A and first-year Double-A players.
As a friendly reminder, players should keep their snorkels and flippers home.
Final details still must be worked out, but it appears that four teams, comprised of players from the United States, Canada, Japan and Korea, will play a 40-game schedule starting on Oct. 1 and the top two teams would play for the championship two days after the regular-season finale.
Each team would have 28-player rosters, Mondays and Thursdays would be off days, and all games would be played on the island of Oahu -- either at Les Murakami Stadium on the University of Hawaii campus or Hans L'Orange in Waipahu -- to reduce travel costs.
Hawaii Winter Baseball officials announced on June 28 that the league -- which had existed from 1993 through 1997 -- would return this fall, pending agreement with Major League Baseball and officials from Canada, Japan and South Korea.
The four HWB teams would be the Waikiki Beachboys, North Shore Honu, West Oahu Canefires and Honolulu Sharks. Managers, coaches and rosters would be determined in September, and for the first time in nearly nine years, professional baseball would be played in the Aloha state.
"Winter [League] ball is very important to a player's development," said J.J. Picollo, the Atlanta Braves director of Minor League operations, "and this is a chance for younger players to get more at-bats, face more hitters, and then take the next step you are asking them to take."
For the past seven years, the least experienced Minor League players had no place to play after their regular seasons ended.
Teams in the Arizona Fall League are comprised mostly of Triple-A and Double-A players with one roster spot on each of the eight teams reserved for a Class A player. Winter Baseball Leagues in the Caribbean and Mexico stock their rosters with native sons or foreign players from the high Minor League levels.
But now there is a place for the youngest professional players to improve their skills.
And who wouldn't want to spend a couple of months playing baseball in paradise?
Professional baseball and Hawaii have been partners for most of the past 45 years. The association started in 1961, when the Pacific Coast League Sacramento Solons moved to Honolulu and became the Hawaii Islanders. The franchise reached its pinnacle in 1970 when it won 98 games and drew more than 467,000 fans.
The Islanders remained in the PCL through 1987. After attendance dipped to 116,000 in that final season, the franchise was moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where it is now the Colorado Rockies' Triple-A farm team. That left Hawaii without pro baseball until 1993, when the original Hawaii Winter Baseball League was started. Five years later, the league disbanded for financial reasons.
But during those five years, the league made its mark on the game.
The list of HWB alums reads like an All-Star lineup -- Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Tadahito Iguchi, A.J. Pierzynski, Todd Helton, Michael Barrett, Derrek Lee, Adam Kennedy, Mark Kotsay, Preston Wilson and Randy Winn.
Helton had been drafted in the first round by the Colorado Rockies in 1995 and the eighth-overall selection reported to Class A Asheville, N.C., where he batted .254 in 54 games.
"As a first-round draft choice, I was supposed to be good, but I stunk at Asheville," Helton said. "Playing in Hawaii gave me a real good opportunity to get away and just to focus on baseball. I didn't know too many people over there. So that was good."
Helton used his Maui Stingrays experience to get his career on the fast track to the Major Leagues. He joined the Rockies during the '97 season and has been rock-solid ever since, batting at least .300 each of the past eight seasons, winning the 2000 National League batting title with a .372 average, and being named to five All-Star teams.
The former University of Tennessee quarterback entered the 2006 season with a .337 career batting average and leads the Rockies in virtually every offensive category.
Helton is to the Rockies what Ichiro has been to the Seattle Mariners.
Suzuki, the Major League's all-time single-season hit record-holder, six-time All-Star and the American League batting champion in 2001 and '04, was 19 years old when he reported to the Hilo Stars.
"I was only a second-year player and up to that point in my career there was always a Japanese coach watching me play, giving me advice," Ichiro said. "In the Winter League, the coaches and managers there didn't know my style. I was in a situation where I needed to make results myself.
"It was only 40 games, about two months, but during that time, I had to think things through during bad times and try to overcome that on my own. As a player, that kind of experience was very big to me.
"By that time, I had already found my own style. It was a time where I could confirm if that style I had made on my own would work. It was a good time to feel that out."
Feeling good, Ichiro returned to Japan, batted .385 for the Orix Blue Wave in 1994, and has been a .300-plus hitter and an All-Star every season since.
Clyde Nekoba, the former general manager of the Hilo Stars and now the HWB vice president, recently told The Associated Press that he realized the first time he saw Ichiro play that he was good, but not nearly as good as he turned out to be.
"You could see he had tools: good hands, speed, a great arm and he could put the ball on both sides of the field. That you could see," Nekoba said. "But [playing in] the Major Leagues? I don't think so."
Seven years before becoming the American League's Most Valuable Player with the Oakland Athletics in 2000, Giambi honed his sweet swing with the Kauai Emeralds.
The Athletics' second-round draft choice in 1992, Giambi played for Class A Modesto (California League) in '93, batting .291 with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs in 89 games. A fall in Hawaii was his reward.
"I had a good time playing in it," Giambi said of his HWB experience. "I don't know if it helped me any, but it was fun to keep playing baseball. The thing about baseball is the more you play, the better you're going to get."
Fun and games are two of the primary ingredients of playing fall ball in Hawaii, and the HWB probably isn't taken quite as seriously as when the Islanders were in business.
Irv Noren, a former Major League outfielder and third-base coach for the Athletics and Chicago Cubs was a player/manager for the Islanders during the 1962 and '63 seasons.
"I had to remind players that they were here to play ball and they were not on vacation," Noren said, recalling the time when the Los Angeles Angels sent a pitcher to the Triple-A farm team in Hawaii and he stepped off the plane carrying a snorkel and flippers.
"One of the few fines I had was for getting so sunburned that you couldn't play," he said. "It cost the player $50. We had a few of those, but not too many."
And there was just the one snorkel, flippers episode.
"It was fun, we drew fairly well, and the fans loved to manage," Noren recalled.
The fans could soon be getting another opportunity to play out their managerial fantasies.