Hawaii Changed Baseball, and Now Returns

Thirteen years before the World Baseball Classic pushed the worldwide nature of America's Pastime, an often overlooked league united players on both sides of the Pacific. After nearly a decade of hiatus, the Hawaiian Winter Baseball league returns to a new age of baseball.

In 1993, a skinny kid from Japan who had just turned 20 took the outfield for the Hilo Stars, part of a new winter league in Hawaii.  While the idea of a league combining players from across the Pacific was nothing new, especially to Hawaii, this particular iteration of Hawaiian baseball arguably changed the face of the baseball world.

That skinny kid was Ichiro Suzuki.  He went on to win the batting title in Japan’s Pacific League, and later took the love for the American style of the game that was fostered in Hawaii to America’s Major Leagues, winning the Rookie of the Year, and helping open the eyes to the quality of the baseball being played across the Pacific.

Now, 6 months after the World Baseball Classic gave the entire globe a taste of a true professional, international baseball competition, the Hawaiian Winter Baseball league returns to a new world of baseball.

An Experiment in Cultures

Hawaii’s place in the world has made it a crossroads of culture for centuries, ever since explorers coming from both the East and West landed there.  Alexander Joy Cartwright, whose contributions to the sport include setting the standard 90 feet of basepaths, moved to the islands in 1849.  In the 1920’s, one of Hawaii’s first organized leagues had teams comprised of Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos and Caucasians.

But the league that began in 1993, founded by Duane Kurisu, attempted something new.  Instead of having teams divided along national and racial lines, the league combined players from different backgrounds on some teams.  Taking away the divisions between players created by culture might have been a gamble, but it worked.

The original four teams had one team that was a mix of Japanese and MLB players, another team that was a mix of Korean and MLB players, and the other two were MLB only teams.  Kurisu remembered the moment that the success of cross-culturalization became apparent.

“Several weeks into the season, a number of ballplayers and some coaches on the all-MLB teams in Honolulu and Maui would talk to HWB management and sometimes to me that they felt they were missing something terrific and that they wanted the “same kind of arrangement as Hilo and Kauai”,” Kurisu said about the league’s first year.

Lenn Sakata agrees, saying “The combination of East and West, there’s a lot of good things about that.”

Sakata, a Hawaiian native, was a former major league player who won a World Series with Baltimore.  After his playing career, he coached in the systems of the Anaheim Angels and Oakland Athletics, then spent 4 years coaching in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines.  Sakata has spent the past 6 years coaching in the Giants system, leading the San Jose Giants to two California League championships.  Sakata will helm the Waikiki Beach Boys in the HWB this year, after also taking part in the HWB during its initial run.

“I think the Asian players benefited the most from that league, because their interaction with American Major League players was a big deal,” Sakata said about the league’s first run.  “It gives them confidence, because they see how they match up with the American players and if they do well, which they usually do, it opens up their eyes to a different kind of baseball.   It’s forward thinking…Most of the teams from Japan have decided to participate, which is excellent.”

Kurisu waxed poetic in the 1993 yearbook, saying “It’s the hope that one day there will be a true professional international world series.”

Little did he know that, despite the league going on ‘hiatus’ in 1997, the introduction of American and Japanese players to each other would help lead to one of the closest attempts to a ‘true’ world series nearly a decade later.

Globalization in Full Force

The international movement in baseball is hardly a new thing.  Ballplayers from Latin America had been having a powerful influence on the game since the 1960’s.  But despite Masanori Murakami becoming the first Japanese-born player in the major leagues in 1964, joining the San Francisco Giants, the influence of Asian players was minor until Suzuki and fellow countryman Hideo Nomo began turning heads in the mid-1990’s.

Now, most American fans realize that the game played in Japan, is a formidable force.  Japan’s win in the World Baseball Classic only cemented the status of the sport in Japan of being the equal of the game here in America, if not suggesting that it may be stronger.  Many American fans clamor for their teams to look towards the Pacific Rim for new talent.

Don’t think that the Classic’s success was the driving force in restarting the HWB.  “We started reorganizing HWB long before the WBC games,” Kurisu said, “However, we expect the success of the Asian teams in the WBC to help give HWB a little bit more attention from U.S. and Asian fans.”

Meanwhile, baseball in Japan is more popular than ever.  The spectacle of the game in Japan reaches sometimes even garish levels, such as Tsuyoshi Shinjo (who played both in Japan and America) entering the field in ways that rival professional wrestling, once being lowered from the ceiling of a dome on a disco ball.  The fans in Tokyo are just as rabid as any in Boston or New York, and the success of the WBC team under Sadaharu Oh, did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm.

Now, the mixing of Japanese players and American players will come with a respect already earned, and perhaps some rivalry, as players from both sides of the ocean now see themselves as equals.

But at the same time, the global nature of the game is different.  There are still some sizable racial and national dividing lines that exist in the game.  A growing line is becoming apparent between Americans and players from Latin American.  The evidence of this line became disturbingly apparent when a San Francisco radio host criticized the local team of being full of ‘Brain-dead Caribbean hitters,’ sparking an international firestorm, and equally harsh words from Domincan-born manager Felipe Alou.  And that controversy is aside from the political drama between America and two significant Caribbean baseball powers, Cuba and Venezuela.

More and more in major league dugouts, language has become a dividing line as cliques and rivalries continue to grow.

In Hawaii’s first go-around, the language barrier was broken in colorful ways.  “It’s funny that the first words [U.S. and Asian players] teach each other are the swear words, but I see that it certainly brings a different dimension to the club house,” Kurisu shared.  They “fostered something special,” according to him.  “We believed that the success of the [international teams] was largely because the players had to find something extra within themselves to communicate with each other and it helped elevate their level of play.”

The hope is that, despite national rivalries, the return of Hawaiian Baseball might start fostering the cultural unity that can surround the game, and the mutual respect players can develop.  “We in Hawaii are pretty good at running a multi-cultural league.  A large part of it has to do with our diverse population and our ability to be cultural translators.”

Unfortunately, no Korean teams will participate in HWB in 2006, but several MLB teams will be sending Latin American players to participate.

But as important as the Aloha spirit is the Hawaiian league, there’s another new wrinkle to the baseball world that may affect the HWB.

Baseball as a Destination Sport

While the HWB was gone from the world, baseball truly expanded its popularity beyond the Major Leagues.  Minor League baseball has also grown in popularity, setting attendance records in each of the past three years as fans have turned out to see future major leaguers and enjoy the very different ambience of the sport in the minor leagues.

At the same time, baseball has become a destination sport in the month of March as fans flock to the respective Spring Training sites in Arizona and Florida.  Around Phoenix, fans from Chicago and San Francisco are so fervent that games for the respective teams in Mesa and Scottsdale sell out quicker than most concerts.  Meanwhile, in Florida, the state receives annual pilgrimages from northeast baseball meccas like New York and Boston, while other fans come out all the way from Los Angeles to the long-established ‘Dodgertown’ complex.  Even Walt Disney World has built a complex for spring training and minor league baseball.

Meanwhile, Arizona also hosts the increasingly popular Arizona Fall League, a 6-team showcase of top prospect talent, at some of the same stadiums used in the Spring during October.  Both Arizona and Florida also host short-season ‘Rookie’ leagues during the later summer months, usually comprised of teenagers and recently drafted players making their first steps in professional baseball in America.

The idea of traveling to such warm locations in off-travel-season months like March is enticing to many people, and spring training trips often combine with other activities, such as golfing, the beach, family trips and even spring break jaunts.  Spring Training trips are now organized and sponsored by several teams, with packages including plenty of local non-baseball entertainment.

Could Hawaii become a similar destination event for fans?  These possibilities haven’t even been explored.  October isn’t usually a travel month for Americans, as kids are headed back to school, and both money and vacation time is often being saved for the expensive holiday season.  But as the popularity of baseball-themed vacations continue, the possibility of Hawaii in October may become another unique experience for fans.  The HWB does have a renewed international interest going for it, as well as television deals that will broadcast games both in Japan and the continental United States to create new interest in the fledging league as something more than a place to gather more stats on young prospects.

A New Focus on Player Development

The HWB also returns to life as player development in baseball is reaching a crossroads.  As interest in and visibility of the minor leagues have increased, so has the clamor for developing young superstars by fans.  Meanwhile, as major league expenses (particularly salaries) have increased exponentially, owners have looked for ways to cut costs with the minors and make player development more efficient.

As the HWB plays the 2006 season, Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement will expire and a new one will be hammered out.  A big discussion point leading up to the new deal has been changes in the player development system.  Everything from the date of the first-year player draft, the elimination of compensatory picks lost and gained during free agency and the elimination of some of the lower minor leagues have been talked about.

Meanwhile, the HWB sets itself up as an alternative to the Arizona Fall League and winter leagues commonly run in Latin American countries.  While the AFL features primarily players from Triple-A and Double-A, the HWB compliments it by providing a place for younger players, primarily from Single-A, a place to play into the winter months.

While MLB clubs may look to tone down spending in certain areas of player development, the HWB may represent a more efficient way of spending money compared to the other winter alternatives in the Latin American leagues by both the direct interaction of the HWB with clubs, and the lessening of culture shock for all the players involved.

“The advantage to sending players to HWB instead of to Latin countries is that the players will be playing on American soil.  The players will have all the comforts of home in the way of food, communication and compatible access via mobile phones and the internet.  Players and coaches will not have to miss their favorite television shows, too!” Kurisu said about the league.  But not all the differences are in the creature comforts.

“In 1993, when I picked up several players who straggled in on a late night flight, one player innocently said, ‘Wow, this is terrific.  There’s nobody shooting at us with guns!  Where I last played in Venezuela, we had to hit the deck on the bus because people were shooting live bullets at us,’” Kurisu remembered.

While the quality of life and possibility of danger in Latin countries may have changed in 15 years since that incident, the efficiency of sending American players to Latin American countries has been a quiet point of discussion for years.  While the same cultural benefits of mixing players from U.S. and Latin countries existed that exist in the HWB, there often was not the same sort of outreach to help the mixing of players to the same sort of cultural gain that was seen in the first run of the HWB.

The HWB is also overseen by people involved in major league baseball.  Duane Kurisu, the league founder and CEO, is a member of the San Francisco Giants ownership group.  Meanwhile, Rockies Vice President and Assistant General Manager Bill Geivitt, headed the executive committee that helped address the financial issues that MLB was concerned with.  On the other side of the ocean, Tak Kojima, the acting owner of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, helped facilitate discussions between the HWB and Japanese teams.

The HWB has now set itself to be the perfect companion to the AFL.  “It could become a really good league, and surpass the Arizona Fall League, in profile.  Just due to the fact that it’s a broader base,” Sakata says.  “The fall league is okay.  It’s not the league it was designed for, which was a Triple-A league.  It basically has become the same thing that the Hawaiian Winter league is, which is another league for young guys, A-Ball and Double-A players.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Whatever the future holds for HWB, the present is finally here for the team’s founders, former players and current young players.  With rosters announced, the league starts Sunday, October 1st.  And whether or not this incarnation of the league matches the original in its groundbreaking cultural mixing or in lasting effect on the major leagues, it will surely remain one of the most memorable experiences for the young players who play in it and the lucky fans who will get to enjoy it.

The rosters for the 2006 season of Hawaiian Winter Baseball can be found here.

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