Solid Talent, Growing Pains Greet Winter League's Return

See also: Hawaii Winter Baseball Recaps
See also: Hawaii Winter Baseball Preview

HONOLULU--It's been beaches by day and baseball by night with the revival of Hawaii Winter Baseball.

For the 120 or so players, the coaching staffs and the four umpires lucky to draw this assignment, it was a no-brainer to accept the offer to play in the developmental league.

"It didn't take me long to think about it," said West Oahu CaneFires manager Todd Claus, the Red Sox' Double-A skipper at Portland. "Hawaii? You kidding me? I'd jump on that opportunity. When I found out I was selected, I was elated. I brought my family with me. Got a six-year old son. He's enjoying the beaches, doing some skim-boarding and snorkeling. Of course, the wife loves it here. I'm very lucky, very honored to be here."

But forget the perks, such as 80-degree days in October and a five-minute walk to the beach from where most of the players found rentals in Waikiki. The players are legitimate prospects. Most are primarily from high and low Class A with a sprinkle from Double-A and a couple with Triple-A experience. Twenty-one of the 30 big league organizations contributed players. The 32 players from 10 of the 12 Japanese teams add an international flair.

"(The league) might have better talent in terms of potential than the Arizona Fall League," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' assistant general manager/vice president of baseball operations.

Waikiki BeachBoys manager Lenn Sakata agreed.

"This is pretty good baseball," said Sakata, a Hawaii resident and the manager of the Giants' high Class A club in San Jose. "We have some good players here and they're extremely young. That's what's amazing."

During the league's first stint from 1993 to 1997, 138 players found their way to the big leagues. Angels catcher Jorge Fabregas was the first alumnus to reach the bigs in 1994. More notable products include Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Mark Kotsay and Derrek Lee.

Among the notable prospects these days are the Yankees' first two picks of this year's draft in righthanders Ian Kennedy (Southern California, 21st overall) and Joba Chamberlain (Nebraska, 41st overall). As late signs, both have the luxury of logging in their innings in HWB. Another top prospect is catcher Jeff Clement, the Mariners' first-round pick in 2005. He played 67 games at Triple-A Tacoma, hitting .267/.321/.347 in 245 at-bats.

Then there are familiar names. Five sons of current or retired big leaguers are in the league: third baseman Koby Clemens (Astros), infielder Eric Young Jr. (Rockies), outfielder John Mayberry Jr. (Rangers), catcher Drew Butera (Mets) and Will Venable (Padres).

Two days after his season ended, Roger Clemens surprised the crowd--and players for that matter--by showing up at Hans L'Orange Park in the old sugar plantation town of Waipahu, about 20 miles west of Waikiki.

For the players, there weren't much alternatives without HWB. It would be stay home, play in Latin America or attend instructional league. And as Braves farmhand Eric Campbell put it, "Nobody likes instructs."

The original HWB had teams on four islands in Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii (also known as the Big Island) with Kauai eventually giving way to a second team on Oahu. The Honolulu Sharks and West Oahu CaneFires are the only teams left from the previous stint. The Waikiki BeachBoys and North Shore Honu (Hawaiian word for turtle) are the new teams.

League owner Duane Kurisu said he would eventually like to expand by reviving teams on the other islands. Part of the agreement with Major League Baseball was to keep the league on one island for at least two seasons so that front-office personnel and scouts don't have to island-hop to monitor their players. The original league ceased because of financial reasons. Kurisu only agreed to revive the league if MLB was willing to pay the players' salaries.

The majority of players are staying in rentals in Waikiki, which is convenient for food, shopping and entertainment. For players without cars, buses pick up players at a designated spot in Waikiki to take them to the parks. (The other facility is Les Murakami Stadium at the University of Hawai'i, about three miles from Waikiki.) The league provides meals to players after each game.

As with anything new, there are some kinks to work out. Hans L'Orange Park was a county playground with a baseball diamond. It had been refurbished during the league's first time around, but still needed some work for this season. An open-air press box was constructed above the third-base dugout, easily exposing everyone to foul balls. The highlight of the improvements might be the portable restrooms. They aren't just cleaner than a typical stadium bathroom, but also have air-conditioning. Most of all, the park is fan-friendly, as the players must pass through public areas to get to their trailer dressing rooms.

At Murakami Stadium, the University's team is holding fall workouts, so the HWB can't take the field for pregame until 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. start. To get in their work, one team takes batting practice in the covered batting cage, while the other does it the usual way on the field. In a workout before the season started on Oct. 1, Sakata held a practice at a public park near the Waialae Country Club, about two miles east of UH.

Still, fun isn't lost on the participants of the league. On a recent off day, HWB West general manager Rob Farrow took five of the managers and coaches surfing off of Diamond Head.

"It was more like paddling," Claus said. "There were five of us out there. There weren't a whole lot of waves that day, but we have a newfound respect for the ocean and what the surfers actually go through."

As for the players, Hawaii can be distracting for young adults. They were forewarned during orientation about safety and taking their work seriously. Geivett advised them to always play hard because scouts or front office people would be watching.

Claus said the players so far have taken his advice to heart.

"I think they've found a good balance of playing hard on and off the field," he said.