For the fourth time, professional baseball is returning to Hawai'i.
The Maui-based Na Koa Ikaika Maui is one of two new franchises that will debut this season in the independent Golden Baseball League, which begins play May 19.
The Hawaii Islanders played in the Pacific Coast League from 1961-1987 in Honolulu. Hawaii Winter Baseball, a developmental league for prospects in the low minors, had teams on Oahu, Maui, Hawai'i island (also known as the Big Island) and Kaua'i during its first stint from 1993-97. The league was resurrected in 2006 with four teams on Oahu, but shut down again after the 2008 season when Major League Baseball opted not to renew its agreement with the league.
Where affiliated ball has departed, independent baseball is now stepping in. The 10-member Golden League has an international flavor, with five teams in the continental U.S., three in Canada and one in Mexico. Tijuana is the other new franchise, giving the league easily the largest geographic footprint in independent league history.
Na Koa Ikaika Maui—the Hawaiian language translation roughly means the strong warriors of Maui—is one of the more interesting additions to pro baseball on many fronts.
For starters, the team's closest opponent is about 2,500 miles and two time zones away. The team isn't even playing in the state's most populated island.
Yet neither fact appears to be an issue. In fact, there wasn't resistance from other franchises despite the at least five and a half hour plane ride from the continent. Maui team president Rick Berry said Maui enhances the league.
"When you're recruiting players and competing against other leagues, you're talking about the whole picture," Berry said. "One of our road trips is Maui. If I'm a player, I look at that, and 'Gosh, I could be on a bus for 18 hours driving through a desolate area or I could be on a plane over to Maui and play baseball on Maui.'
"From that standpoint, it's a good recruiting tool for our league. It gives us a little exotic feel to the league so to speak."
Berry, who is also the general manager for the St. George franchise in Utah, has been a frequent visitor to Hawai'i in the past and had a passion to bring pro baseball to islands.
For the past three years he had been researching Hawai'i, making inquiries about playing sites and contacting officials from Hawaii Winter Baseball, which played its games at Les Murakami Stadium on the University of Hawai'i campus and at the city-owned Hans L'Orange Park.
But only Maui County was prepared and welcomed the pro teams with open arms.
Maui will play at Iron Maehara Stadium (named after a Hawai'i-based pro scout for the Dodgers), which was the home of the Maui Stingrays during Hawaii Winter Baseball. While Maui's population is about a fourth of Oahu's (roughly 900,000), the island known as the Valley Isle showed the most support for pro baseball during HWB's first stint. The Stingrays led the league in attendance each season of its existence. One of the reasons for that is that the Stingrays were the island's primary sports team, whereas on Oahu, the majority of the populace follows University of Hawai'i sports.
Coincidentally, of the four players from Hawai'i in the big leagues, three—Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino and Mariners righthander Kanekoa Texeira—are from Maui. Only Mariners righthander Brandon League is from Oahu.
Maui is just a start for Berry. He still intends to get a franchise started on Oahu. One obstacle in getting to use Murakami Stadium for this summer was that the facility will have its grandstand roof replaced after the Rainbows' season is over.
If he can get a second team, it should help further cut down travel costs because teams could schedule games against both teams on one trip, and cross-island games would give Maui an opponent that doesn't involve a 2,000-plus mile trip.
Home Island Advantage
To help attract fans, Maui is loading up its 22-player roster with players from the islands. A dozen of about 35 players invited to the team's spring training played high school ball in Hawai'i. Three of them hail from Maui.
"It's important for us here to get as many players from the state of Hawai'i," Berry said. "It makes a difference from attendance to the support of the community. Obviously, we feel there's a lot of talent here, so we're able to have as many on the roster as we do."
None of the Hawai'i players has big league experience, but there are several who have played in the minor leagues.
Among the notable is infielder Rex Rundgren, who has nine seasons of minor league experience in addition to his familiar-sounding surname—he is the son of rock musician Todd Rundgren. The younger Rundgren, who lived on Kaua'i but attended Mid-Pacific Institute, a private school on Oahu, played college ball at Sacramento CC. He was an 11th-round pick by the Marlins in the 2001 draft and played last season with Double-A Tulsa in the Rockies organization.
Gered Mochizuki, who was drafted but not signed by the Royals in 2003 out of Maui's Baldwin High, played college ball at Central Missouri and has played in various independent leagues. He signed with the Mets last year but got released out of spring training.
Living In Luxury
One of the issues that led to the demise of the Hawaii Islanders was travel. Back then, the Islanders partially subsidized visiting teams' travel from the continent to Hawai'i. The Golden League visitors will be footing their own bills for travel, Berry said.
But visiting teams will get free lodging, in a style likely unavailable from the other nine teams. Teams will be staying at the beach-front, AAA four diamond-rated Grand Wailea Hotel Resort and Spa, where according to the facility's website, rooms go for $369 a night and more. Sixteen rooms are set aside for teams, with 11 for the 22 players, and the rest for the manager, coaches and front office personnel.
The teams are not footing the bill because the resort is one of the Maui team's major sponsors. In exchange for the rooms, the resort will get advertising signage at Maehara Stadium, and in the other Golden League parks as well, Maui GM Scott Murray said.
While visiting teams will make only one weeklong trip to the islands, Maui will make four the opposite way. Berry said he is working on an agreement with an airline carrier to help cut down on expenses.
"We'll play two weeks at home, then two weeks on the road," Berry said. "We'll actually make one trip to Canada and three trips to the Mainland. By doing that, that cuts down the number of trips. It's not like we're going to the Mainland, play a four-game series and then come home. When we go there, we'll play at least three different teams at a minimum."
Besides the resort, the Maui team has secured other local sponsorships, and the league is soliciting host families for the team's players who are not native to Maui.
Another way to reduce costs would be to expand within the state, which would cut down on travel, Berry said. Oahu is the next logical move.
"We would like to by next year, but if it doesn't happen by next year then we definitely would like that to happen the following year," Berry said.
"We have the (league's) rights to the whole state. If we don't do it, we'd entertain partners or another entity. We'd have to look at that as well."
Maui will be managed by former big leaguer Cory Snyder, who conducted tryouts on Oahu in March seeking local talent.
The Golden League starts play May 19, but Maui doesn't play until May 21 at Victoria. Maui's fans will have to wait a couple of weeks for the home debut, which is set for June 8 against Tijuana.