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
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.