"It was a grand experience bringing the thrill of pro baseball back to the islands," said Hawaii Winter Baseball league owner Duane Kurisu, in announcing the completion of the league's three-year contract with Major League Baseball.
General managers from each MLB organization, gathered in Las Vegas last week for the Baseball Winter Meetings, voted, "for logistical reasons," to consolidate their minor league fall and winter off-season developmental leagues to one location-Arizona, the current home of the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training's Cactus League.
The decision essentially ends any participation in HWB by players from the MLB and its minor league affiliates.
"Everyone at HWB poured 100% into it," Kurisu said. "I particularly want to thank our HWB employees for their extraordinary performance over the years in putting pro baseball on the field here in the islands. We would also like to thank all of our fans and sponsors for their continued support.
"This past year, with the smoothness of the operations and the outstanding quality of the on-field play-including the presence of seven first-round draft picks, and six players from the top 100 selections in the 2008 draft-I feel HWB was on top of its game."
The HWB league opened in 1993, with 16 of the then 28 Major League Baseball club systems sending young, developing pro players from their class-A and AA farm clubs who then played on four teams which incorporated young pro players from Japanese professional baseball--including players from the Orix Blue Wave, Daiei Hawks and Nippon Ham Fighters.
In the world of pro baseball, the league was unique.
Soon, dusting their cleats in the red soil of Hans L'Orange Field, or blasting home runs off wooden bats in Rainbow Stadium (recently dubbed Les Murakami Stadium), Hawaii fans were introduced to the likes of future famous major leaguers including the then 21-year-old Ichiro Suzuki and slugger Jason Giambi.
Suzuki, who went on to win MLB's Rookie of the Year honors and Most Valuable Player accolades with the Seattle Mariners, credits Hawaii for helping develop his game, and he says he still recalls fondly the time he spent in the islands.
"Looking back on it, I feel it was a time in my life that I could develop a lot of confidence in my abilities in baseball," said Suzuki through an interpreter. "I used the experience and confidence I gained in Hawaii to play in Seattle. The Hawaiian people have something original about them, and I like Hawaii so much that I've held my wedding there. In Hawaii the weather is warm, but the people are warm also."
"I love the game," added Kurisu, "but my passion has been creating and operating a league that gives these pro players something more than just development of their physical skills.
"You can't quantify it, but in baseball it's particularly important. This Hawaii-imparted intangible quality helps a player handle the 160-game seasons and the long number of seasons associated with some of the great major league player careers."
The scouts talk about the five tools in baseball, said Kurisu, but he maintains that Hawaii's unique contribution to the game played a large part in development of the so-called sixth tool-the intangible characteristics of a ball player. Kurisu believes that many of these attributes are built in Hawaii more than anywhere else "because of the culture, and just by the players being in the Islands."
HWB filled a special niche for baseball when it opened, by providing a competitive off-season domestic league for A and AA-level pro players. Prior to HWB, Major League organizations which wanted to develop the skills of their players at that level were forced to send them to the Caribbean, or other winter leagues in South America and Mexico.
HWB originally launched in 1993 and ran through the 1997 campaign. Following an extended "rain delay," HWB re-launched under a new three-year contract in 2006. The 2008 season saw participation from 23 of the 30 MLB clubs, six of 12 teams from Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, and the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization.
But last week, the MLB general managers, at their annual winter meetings, voted to consolidate fall/winter off-season leagues-including Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League-in Arizona.
MLB will continue to operate the six Arizona Fall League teams, and its Instructional League. And, the four former Hawaii Winter Baseball league teams, which field A-level and AA-level players, will be incorporated into a second fall league.
"We have some opportunities to remain involved with pro baseball at various levels," added league president Hervy Kurisu, brother of Duane Kurisu. "But for now we're sacking up the equipment, and continuing work on developing future opportunities."