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by Shane Toguchi, student writer

The air begins to cool and summer has come to an end, marking the beginning of homeruns, double plays, brush backs, and strikeouts of September baseball. But in Hawai‘i? Yes, Hawai‘i Winter Baseball, the only professional sports league in Hawai‘i, is back for the second year in a row, after a nine-year hiatus, for its seventh season in the islands. The league, which features top prospects from the United States and Asia, is scheduled to start play in mid-September.

Hawai‘i Winter Baseball (HWB) debuted in 1993 and lasted five seasons until league play was suspended for financial reasons. Things have changed since the last game of 1997, HWB now has full Major League Baseball (MLB) support and better financial footing. Assistant General Manager Wesley Yonamine explained that, the, “first time around, the league paid for most of the expenses including the players’ salaries.” In the reconstituted league, MLB is paying their salaries.

According to Marketing Manager Kurt Zwald, “Major League Baseball officials saw the advantage and benefits of sending their guys to us (HWB). They offered to share the burden of costs to help get HWB off the shelf and up running again.”

In 2006, nearly all 30 U.S. Major League Baseball teams and most Japanese League teams participated in the league. Yonamine reported that all these teams have committed to HWB for 2007 and that the Korean and Taiwanese leagues have also expressed interest in sending their players.
The HWB league comprises four teams, each with a combination of American and Asian professionals. Last season, the league was based on the island of O‘ahu. This season according to Zwald, the majority of games will be played on O‘ahu, but many games will also be played on the outer islands.

Playing games on the outer islands is a good thing said Yonamine. In the league’s early years, teams were based on Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island and according to equipment manager Randy Nakama, “the neighbor islands were the biggest draw. [HWB] was the only entertainment in town, so stadiums were always packed.”

According to Zwald, before the league was suspended, the league attendance was increasing each year by relatively high percentages. “I consider the 2006 season as a start-up year,” said Zwald. “The attendance should be higher this season and should continue to grow when the public realizes the quality of HWB players.” Yonamine added that the talent last year was far better than any of the other years: “I think the league had developed a reputation, and this time the major leagues acknowledged it. They sent the best of the best last year. We’ll see some of these guys in the show this year,” he said.

More than 140 Major League players have played in HWB, which has been the stepping-stone for many MLB all-stars, including Ichiro Suzuki, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Russ Ortiz, and Derek Lee.

“ The level of talent in HWB has always been high,” said Yonamine. “You can always see that some players are ‘can’t misses’ and will be stars in the show.”

During the HWB hiatus, MLB tried to start other winter leagues in the United States. None lasted longer than a year. The only winter league that has had a longer tenure than HWB is the Caribbean Winter League in Central America. However, Zwald believes that while this league has many major league players on the roster, it is not the best way for younger, inexperienced players to develop. HWB provides players with top-level competition at their experience level, according to Zwald.
HWB also provides a great opportunity for fans, who get to preview players who are likely to become MLB players or NPB stars. HWB teams have many first or second round draft picks on their rosters. Former office manager for HWB, Katie Uechi, pointed out that, “Fans can watch their favorite team’s first-round draft picks.”

“ Especially for the Japanese baseball fans, this is the closest they can ever get to the players,” said Nakama, “in Japan, you can’t even shake their hands at the ballpark. [Here,] it’s almost like a spring training atmosphere. Players will talk to fans right in the stands. They will even go out for drinks after the games.”

O‘ahu games are played at Hans L’Orange in Waipahu and Les Murakami Stadium on the University of Hawai‘i-Manoa campus. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hawaiiwinterbaseball.com or at the sites on game days. For information about outer islands games visit the HWB Web site or call the HWB office at (808) 973-7247.




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