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From Honolulu With Love

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(Photo by Robb Carr/Getty Images)

Gerald Oda did not want a repeat of Game 2. The loss of focus. The misplays. Game 2 might have been the one time Oda’s players actually looked like 12-year-olds—mesmerized by the ESPN cameras and the Jose Bautista handshakes. He could see the stars in their eyes. 

But Oda didn’t blame the kids for that. The gravity of the Little League World Series had got to him, too. At one point the manager found himself fuming, ready to rip into one of his assistant coaches—until he remembered that these 14 young, impressionable boys are always watching.

Yes, Hawaii beat Great Lakes in that Game 2, but it was not Hawaiian baseball and certainly not how this group got to Williamsport. “You guys didn’t get here because you played for the TV. You got here because you played together as a team,” Oda, 50, told them in a team meeting later that Sunday.

He then unlocked his iPhone, scrolled through his messages and recited a Harry Truman quote that a coaching friend had texted him:

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

After that meeting, in the three games that followed, Hawaii didn’t make another error. Better yet, it didn’t allow a single run.

In a week’s time, Hawaii motored through the World Series bracket. On Aug. 26, Hawaii needed just three more outs against South Korea to win this year’s championship. They were up 3-0 in the title game, and as bright as the spotlight had felt a week before, this burned 1,000 times brighter.

Just before the final frame, Oda crouched low in the Lamade Stadium dirt in front of the first-base dugout, the sun bouncing off his bright yellow uniform top. He lowered himself until he had a direct look at those 14 sets of eyes in front of him.

“Enjoy this moment guys,” he said, as calmly as he could muster, as the ESPN microphones amplified every word for a national audience. “It’s never going to come again. Whatever happens, you guys are doing great. Just keep battling. It’s a great day. It’s a great, great day. Love each other.”

Love each other, he echoed and echoed, reminding the boys of what got them to Williamsport—their Aloha Spirit. For Oda, “aloha” isn’t just a greeting on a honeymoon postcard. It’s something you take with you, zip into your airplane luggage and carry everywhere you go. It’s more than a word. It’s love.

And what a wonderful opportunity this was to show the world exactly what it means to be Hawaiian.

The final few seconds of Hawaii’s world series championship almost looked choreographed. 

RHP Ka'olu Holt threw a complete-game shutout for Hawaii against South Korea to claim the Little League World Series championship.

The boys from Oahu take the field one last time. Third baseman Aukai Kea—who went viral after an 11th-inning walk-off homer and bat flip in Game 1—sprints toward the pitcher’s mound and wraps his arms around righthander Ka’olu Holt, embracing him before he can even throw a pitch. Shortstop Taylin Oana runs over to hug Holt, too.

“Love each other.”

The first pitch is grounded toward second baseman Sean Yamaguchi. He’s the team’s most vocal and exuberant leader, their most colorful splash of personality. The Hawaii fan-and-parent contingent made huge posters of the stocky, powerful Yamaguchi, jokingly calling him “Big Sexy.” The TV cameras love him. He vacuums up the grounder and fires to first, then punches the air with his fist. One pitch, one out.

“Love each other.”

Now, Holt’s second pitch is grounded directly to Kea at third, who throws to first baseman Mana Lau Kong for the second out.

Another round of hugs. Yamaguchi bolts from second base toward third and almost tackles Kea on the infield grass, while Holt receives yet another embrace on the mound—this time from his first baseman. From above, they look like tiny electrons bouncing around a nucleus.

Still one more out to go. Holt has never thrown a complete game before, and there hasn’t been a shutout in the LLWS title game since 2002. Listed at 5-foot-6, 121 pounds, Holt is a lanky, rail-thin righthander, but it would be a mistake to underestimate him. Emboldened by the love from his teammates, Holt finishes off South Korea himself, breaking another one of his bread-and-butter sliders below the zone for a flailing strike three. He throws his hat 20 feet into the air and receives 13 hugs at the same time. The tears flow. Aloha.

This is the third LLWS title for the state of Hawaii, with Ewa Beach winning in 2005 and Waipio winning in 2008. But the eastern Oahu region of Hawaii, where these boys hail, hadn’t had a team reach Williamsport since the Pearl Harbor team made the trip in 1960.

As the boys mob each other and dump a Gatorade cooler on Oda, as they scoop clumps of Pennsylvania dirt into Ziploc bags to take home, an 85-year-woman with curly gray hair presses herself against the fence behind home plate. She’s impossible to miss in her red shirt that says “Honolulu” on the front and “MARY,” in all-caps, on the back. In a sea of phones, her hand is empty, her eyes open, her heart full.

Auntie Mary And The Aloha Spirit

It began with a trip to the beach.

In those days, all of the games took place near the shore. There weren’t quite as many as there are now. The rules were more relaxed, the dreams smaller. Getting in a full uninterrupted game was a minor miracle. Most of the coaches were firemen. Whenever the bell rang, they’d have to sprint from the dugout to their fire engines.

One day, one of Mary Ciacci’s friends—and a fellow mother—invited her to a game that her sons were playing in.

“And I said, ‘Sure, let’s go, take the kids to the beach,’ ” Ciacci remembered. “And I went there and nobody was keeping score—so I kept score.

“They said, ‘What are you doing next week?’ ”

The next week Ciacci kept score again. Then the next week and the next. And the next. Then her own young boys started playing, and her involvement with Oahu Little League grew. Within a couple of years, she earned the role of district administrator of Hawaii’s sixth district—a role she has happily held for the last 50 years.

It’s a thankless job, one that has grown more thankless and more time-consuming as Little League expanded throughout Hawaii and worldwide. Ciacci is on her phone for hours each day dealing with coaches, kids, parents. She’s a human rulebook, tasked with making sure coaches know and abide by every regulation. She’s the one who fields the complaints and criticisms, who handles the logistics no one else wants to touch.

Mary Clacci, 85, has served as a little league district administrator in Hawaii for the last 50 years.

The feeling of family, the sense of community is what’s kept her going. She finds joy in the success of the boys, following them even after Little League, watching them play in high school, college and professionally. Though they didn’t belong to her district, she watched future big leaguers like Kolten Wong, Kurt Suzuki and Shane Victorino play as young boys. She remembers watching Honolulu manager Gerald Oda and his assistant coach—his brother Keith—playing in the league when they were 12.

“She’s a good lady,” Oda said. ”She’s done this with the intent just to really help kids. I mean, who does something like that for that long?

“Everyone calls her ‘Auntie Mary.’ She’s very sharp. For an 85-year-old, she’s very tough. We told our kids they need to show appreciation for her because she’s been doing it for so, so long. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have this opportunity to play in this tournament.”

In 50 years as district administrator, Ciacci never had a single team in her region advance to the Little League World Series—until this year.

She very nearly retired before the season. She found herself overwhelmed at the Little League International Congress in New Orleans in January. All of the additional responsibilities she’s absorbed over the years finally got to her. Ciacci’s children retired well before she even considered it. “My kids are old,” she said, with a self-deprecating smile. She lost two of her sons to cancer years ago.

The only reason Ciacci stayed through the 2018 season was because Oda asked her to. He thought he had a good team. Not necessarily Williamsport good—but good enough to compete for the Hawaii state tournament crown and advance to regional play in San Bernardino, Calif.

“You’ve gotta stay and retire after next year,” Oda told her.

“I said, ‘Oh come on, Gerald,” laughed Ciacci. “And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll do it next year.’ ”

Oda stayed true to his word. When his Honolulu team won the state tournament, he invited Ciacci to San Bernardino. When they won in San Bernardino, he brought her to Williamsport. Auntie Mary sat through every game and watched intently—even games Hawaii didn’t participate in. In San Bernardino, the 85-year-old didn’t budge from her seat, despite record-high 116-degree temperatures. She poured cold water on her legs to keep cool. In Williamsport, during a rain delay in Game 3, she remained in her first-row seat, draping herself in a poncho as a deluge fell on her. She was active in each game, cheering for each player, telling them to look for their pitch, monitoring pitch counts, keeping an eye on the umpires.

She spent most of the championship game on the edge of her seat, leaning forward, engaged. She said she couldn’t relax until Hawaii expanded its lead.

“Oh, this is something unbelievable,” she said as she leaned against the Lamade Stadium fence, still processing the moment. A world championship in her final year. Her last hurrah.

Even more rewarding for Ciacci was the way the boys went about it, how they represented Hawaii. She points directly to Oda and his brother for that.

One night during the World Series, event sponsor Chick-Fil-A hosted a dinner for all 16 teams and coaches in a hangar-sized cafeteria. Of the 16, one stayed behind to help clean up. 

“They didn’t have to do this for us,” Oda told the boys. “Don’t take it for granted.”

Throughout the tournament, Oda emphasized the importance of gratitude and humility, of smiling, of always saying “thank you” when someone wishes you luck or shakes your hand. No one on Team Hawaii ever turned down a kid looking for an autograph. Even more, through positivity, Oda pushed his boys to be confident and accountable. He made a habit of redirecting press conference questions to his players, so they could speak for themselves.

This was why Oda started coaching 25 years ago—for the life lessons. He didn’t play baseball beyond high school, but the wisdom he and his two brothers gained from playing in Little League stuck with them.

“We just love the game, me and my brothers, because baseball has always been good to us,” Oda said. “I look at these parents and see how fortunate these kids are to have parents who truly support them, and my parents did support us, but because of their financial situation, they were hardly at any of our games. They worked two jobs. They worked the weekends.”

Of course, like any competitor, Oda has long had his eye on reaching Williamsport. He never imagined it would take 25 years to get there. The idea of any Hawaii team winning the Series seemed unimaginable back then. It wasn’t until 2005, when Ewa Beach won the title, that Oda and the rest of the islands started to truly believe.

The youth baseball landscape in Hawaii changed drastically after that championship. Coaches began mimicking the practices of that Ewa Beach team.

Gone were the days of firemen coaches and pure community-driven rosters. Coaches became more selective in their team construction, worked with kids at younger ages, built travel teams and took them to compete on the mainland. That movement gained even more traction when Waipio won the title in 2008—and reached Williamsport for a second time in 2010.

“Up until then, we had a very difficult time against the mainland teams,” Oda said. “Whereas now, it’s still hard, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing to fear anymore.”

Oda himself flirted with Williamsport in 2014, when he took perhaps his most talented team to regional play in San Bernardino, earning the No. 1 seed. The Honolulu team lost in the semifinals, in heartbreaking, 1-0 fashion to the No. 4 seed.

Knowing just how difficult the road is to the LLWS—just 16 of 6,000 teams advance to that stage—Oda thought 2014 was his last chance. He had become so wrapped up with winning, so enamored of the idea of becoming the next Hawaiian championship team, that he questioned himself for the first time:

“Is this something that I should keep doing?”

And that’s where Little League provided yet another learning moment for Oda, even at age 46. After much self-reflection, he made a conscious effort to refocus his priorities and his mindset, to appreciate the present more. He turned his attention inward, away from his competition, away from the schedules and postseason brackets, and back toward the kids.

Even if he didn’t win another game, Oda made it his personal mission to instill in his kids the Aloha Spirit.

“Aloha means a lot—it means love, it means compassion,” Oda said. “Aloha means we’re like family, and within a family we’re going to have arguments and disagreements, but when it comes down to it, we have to love each other. Play with respect and play with a lot of love—not only for ourselves but for our opponents, too.

“And we told our kids, whenever we play a team, they’re not the enemy. That’s got nothing to do with it. We don’t have to hate so and so. That has nothing to do with us. The enemy is us.”

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A Message Of Hope

Of all the boys, Aukai Kea might be the most like his manager. The way he locks onto the present moment, his self-assuredness, his coolness under duress. He stands out in every conceivable way. At 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, he had one of the more thickly built frames in the tournament. His performance on the field, as both a pitcher and hitter, was unparalleled. In Hawaii’s very first game against Georgia, he threw 6.1 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 10 before hitting a walk-off homer in the 11th and mimicking Bryce Harper with a two-handed bat flip, much to the delight of Twitter.

Of course, maturity aside, he’s still just 12 years old, and he was one of the several players who found himself rattled in Game 2. That was the day big leaguers from the Mets and Phillies visited the complex, before playing the second annual Little League Classic at nearby Bowman Field. Two days after his own walk-off shot, Kea had the opportunity to shake hands with Jose Bautista—bat-flipper extraordinaire—before the game. Knowing Bautista was watching him from the stands, Kea hoped he could homer and pay tribute. Instead, he made a throwing error from third base in the last inning, one of the few times he looked his age.

On the day of Game 3, news broke about Hurricane Lane—at one point a Category 5 storm that threatened to strike Hawaii. With Honolulu appearing to be directly in the storm’s path, the Hawaii team’s focus suddenly shifted from winning a LLWS championship to calling friends and family back home and praying for their safety. Some weather outlets projected the hurricane to make landfall that Wednesday night.

Baseball felt much smaller. There was no greater threat to Hawaii’s Aloha Spirit. Yet Oda didn’t waver in his pregame message to the team.

“We told the kids, ‘Hey, this is our opportunity to give back,’ ” Oda said. “Because we know there are a lot of people at home watching the game. For them to watch us, we can give them hope. We can take their mind off (the hurricane). That’s what we hope to do.”

Kea was the natural choice to take the mound, and he quickly snapped back into the form he showed in Game 1, toeing the rubber with an uncanny stoicism. The first inning was a blur. Kea needed just seven pitches to retire the first three Staten Island batters in order—two via strikeout. His location was pinpoint, his pace lightning quick. He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning.

“Credit to him,” Oda said. “It’s tough coming into this game. I can’t imagine a 12-year-old stepping on the mound in this kind of situation and coming in calm and relaxed.”

He wasn’t the only one. Not a single player seemed fazed. With their loved ones back home watching and bracing for disaster, Hawaii put together its most dominant performance of the Series, activating the mercy rule by taking a 10-0 lead in the fifth inning.

Yamaguchi effectively ended the game in the second inning, reprising his role as team spark plug. He drilled a booming grand slam to left field to ignite the Hawaii dugout and send his teammates spilling onto the field.

“We’re sending our prayers to Hawaii, and even though we’re 4,000 miles away, we’re still connected,” said Oda, doing his best to hold back tears. “And we can’t thank them enough—they have such a big storm coming and yet they’re still supporting us.”

At that moment, Oda couldn’t refrain any longer. He dropped his head and held his hand to his eyes, apologizing to the reporters in the room as he tried to gather himself.

Sitting to Oda’s right, Yamaguchi wrapped his arm around his manager and gave him a loving pat on the back.

Everything Little League Baseball is designed to represent—amateurism, sportsmanship, teamwork, purity—came to life in the moments surrounding Hawaii’s fourth game, the United States championship. 

The hurricane never struck. Oda was praying in his hotel room around 2 a.m. on game day when he received the weather-service text that told him Lane had mercifully been downgraded to a tropical storm. A little earlier, he had received another message, from the Salvation Army:

Hawaii’s next opponent, Georgia, donated to the hurricane relief fund on Hawaii’s behalf.

The gesture touched Oda and everyone involved with the team from Honolulu. Hawaii and Georgia had met in the first game of the Series and grappled for an epic 11 innings, more than enough time for Oda to get a read on his counterpart, coach Patrick Gloriod.

“He’s a great guy,” Oda said. “How he coaches his team and how they play is actually a resemblance of our kids. And as coaches, we were talking, we’re gonna play a team that looks just like us . . . We call it Aloha Spirit. They call it Southern Hospitality. Same thing.”

Gathered in the private players’ village, dubbed The Grove, hours before they were set to face each other in the U.S. Championship, the teams from Peachtree City, Ga., and Honolulu watched the Japan-South Korea game together. ESPN cameras focused in on the boys in different uniforms laughing, hugging, high-fiving, trading Little League collector’s pins. Gloriod and Oda joked with each other that neither one of them had actually watched an international game yet.

That camaraderie continued when the teams took the field later that afternoon. Minutes before first pitch, the entire Hawaii team walked over to the third-base dugout, bringing traditional Hawaiian leis with them as gifts, one for each player. The Honolulu boys exchanged hugs with their Georgian peers, while Oda presented Gloriod with a Kukui nut lei—a high honor in Hawaiian culture.

Ask any of the kids on either team what their favorite part of the tournament was, and they’ll tell you it was the connections that they made, the friendships that began, the conversations with boys from other ends of the Earth, typed through Google Translate on their phones.

“It felt really great,” said first baseman Mana Lau Kong, “because rarely do Hawaii teams get to be in this moment and feel what it feels like to be meeting people from around the world and playing baseball against them, too.”

Those friendships didn’t dissolve, even after Hawaii won the U.S. title 3-0 and advanced to the finals against South Korea. It didn’t seem possible, but Kea pitched at an even higher level in his third appearance, going the distance and striking out 15 batters, utilizing a dazzling splitter to devastating effect.

In the middle of the postgame celebration and the rousing “Hon-o-lu-lu!” chants from the Hawaii fan section, Kea and his teammates made it a point to console Georgia players. In particular, the boys had all grown to love shortstop Tai Peete, an electric, charismatic player who made many friends during his time in Williamsport. Peete was one of the few who had success against Kea at the plate, singling against him with two outs in the sixth inning. After Kea retired the game’s final batter, he walked over to Peete and hugged him.

The next day, before the title game with South Korea, Little League Baseball honored Georgia and Hawaii both with an award for their sportsmanship—an honor that Oda said meant as much, if not more, than the title.

Even after defeat, Georgia players rooted for their newfound friends from the stands at Lamade Stadium, each player donning the leis they’d been given the day before.

This was the ultimate lesson that Oda had hoped to impart on his players, win or lose: Aloha Spirit isn’t limited to a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It can exist anywhere, even 4,000 miles east in a small town in Pennsylvania.

“We think of this as paradise,” Oda said of Williamsport. “This is our paradise.”

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