After a nine-year wait, local sports fans can celebrate the return of professional baseball to Hawai‘i. From 1993 to 1997, Hawai‘i Winter Baseball (HWB) launched the careers of 130 major leaguers, including Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki and New York Yankee Jason Giambi. On Oct. 1 of this year, the developmental league picks up with the start of its sixth season. President Hervy Kurisu explains how, this time, HWB plans to stay for good.
|photo: Jimmy Forrest|
Q: HWB discontinued its games in 1997, because of the lack of financial support from Major League Baseball. What’s changed to make pro baseball possible again?
A: Last time around, we were paying for 90 percent of coaches’ and players’ salaries, and it was going to be 100 percent in the final year of the contract, so we decided enough is enough. This time, Major League Baseball has stepped up to the plate. They agreed to compensate us with all the salaries for coaches, players and trainers, and they’re also going to provide the bats and catchers’ equipment.
Q: HWB has set itself apart from other leagues by bringing in pro players from Japan and South Korea, in addition to MLB prospects from the Mainland. How heavily are you recruiting in Asia now?
A: There’s a whole focus on international baseball these days, with Ichiro and [the Chicago White Sox’s Tadahito] Iguchi, and I think the momentum was started by HWB in 1993. About 40 players out of the 112 will come from Asia. Ten of the 12 teams from Japan’s Professional Baseball Organization are sending players this year—the most that’s ever come from the teams in any given year. Korea and Taiwan have also confirmed they’re going to send players.
Q: Are you bringing home any local boys?
A: There are at least 20 Hawai‘i guys affiliated with Major League Baseball right now—people like Dane Sardinha, Ricky Bauer, Kurt Suzuki. We have the option to pick up two local players per team. For drawing purposes, it’s good to have local players. The roster will be finalized [this month], but we can’t say for sure who’s going to come.
Q: In HWB’s last season, attendance hit an all-time high of 112,761. How do you plan to keep people coming?
A: It’s not going to be a typical baseball game. You might see cheerleaders and, between innings, you’ll see a lot of promotions. We foresee having people who aren’t even coming to watch the game. They’ll be having so much fun drinking beer, participating in promotions and taking in the whole environment. We’ll also do whatever we can to build interaction between the players and the public. People have to know that this is their team and their players.
|HAWAI‘I WINTER BASEBALL
Oct. 1 to Nov. 22
General admission: $4 Hans L’Orange Park, $5 Les Murakami Stadium
Q: You’ve announced plans for four teams on O‘ahu. The Waikiki Beach Boys and Honolulu Sharks will be based at UH Manoa’s Les Murakami Stadium, and the West O‘ahu CaneFires and North Shore Honu will be at Waipahu’s Hans L’Orange Park. Is Hans L’Orange equipped for pro games?
A: We have to make a lot of improvements at Hans L’Orange to satisfy Major League regulations—renovate the field surface, provide locker rooms for the two teams and then install restroom facilities, because the other one is too far away from the field. We also have to construct a press box and ticket booth.
Q: During HWB’s first run, you had teams on Kaua‘i, Maui and the Big Island. Why no Neighbor Island teams this year?
A: That was a stipulation by Major League Baseball. They said, when we come back, first couple years, they prefer us to be on one island, O‘ahu, to make it easier for their scouts. It also gets expensive to fly players between Islands. But that’s their stipulation, not ours. Eventually, we would want to go back to the Big Island, Maui and Kaua‘i. Hopefully we can get there again, but it all depends on if the support is still there.
Editor’s note: Hawai‘i Winter Baseball chairman and CEO Duane Kurisu is the chairman and CEO of aio group, owner of HONOLULU Magazine.