In 1993, the Hawaii Winter League launched its inaugural baseball season, but the legacy of the game in the islands stretched back almost to the beginning of baseball time.
The founder of organized baseball, Alexander Joy Cartwright, moved to the islands in 1849, only three years after stepping off the 90 feet for the basepaths in a New York meadow and devising such other classic rules of the game as the foul ball and the dropped third strike.
The popularity of Cartwright's new game caught on in the islands immediately.
The first baseball game in Hawaii to be saved for the record books was played on July 4, 1866 and saw the "natives" beating the "haoles" (Caucasians) 2-1.
J. Ashman Beaven recognized the growing popularity of the game and sank his entire fortune into building the big wooden Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili in 1926.
That led to what may be called Hawaii's first international league with franchises awarded to the Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipinos and the Caucasians.
Even the great Babe Ruth was coaxed to the islands in 1933 to play in two exhibition games. The following year, baseball greats like J. Foxx and Lou Gehrig joined the Great Bambino for more exhibition games.
By the mid-1940's, 26,000 fans would cram the bleachers to watch Major League All-Star games. Rosters of the games played here during WWII included Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Schoolboy Rowe, and Vernon Olson.
The old wooden Honolulu Stadium, by then affectionately called "The Termite Palace," was home to Hawaii's first traveling professional team, the Hawaii Islanders, which launched in 1961 with the advent of regular jet travel between the islands and the mainland. Later, with a move to modern Aloha Stadium and a division title-winning 1970 season in the Pacific Coast League the Hawaii team lead all the mainland Minor League teams in attendance-- with 470,000 paid fans that year. The Islanders played for 27 years, winning three more division titles and two more PCL pennants.
In 1993, after a five-year hiatus for professional baseball in the islands, the crack of wooden bats and the beloved professional game returned in the formation of the Hawaii Winter Baseball League. Teams composed of some of the best young prospects from 16 American major league teams, 3 Japanese pro teams, and 4 Korean pro teams took to the fields on four islands and delighted Hawaii's pro baseball fans.
Like Beaven, some sixty-seven years earlier, HWB owner Duane Kurisu invested in creating a baseball experience for island fans. Kurisu's dream, however, included the hope and belief that Hawaii's winter league could provide a special experience for up-and-coming stars... from many nations.
In the 1993 inaugural season yearbook, league-owner Kurisu wrote:
" Baseball is a game for dreamers.
where dreams can come true.
it's that game-winning homerun at the bottom
of the ninth with two men out...
it's that first time at bat as a professional
it's the hope that one day there will be a true
professional international world series."
The dream of playing in the Major Leagues came true for 130 HWB players who played in the islands from 1993-1997. Hawaii baseball fans recognized the potential of the young pro talent in the league which included...
Ichiro Suzuki, following a stellar season's performance in the outfield for HWB's Hilo Stars in the inaugural year went on a wild tear in the Pacific League, winning the batting title by hitting .385 and collecting over 200 hits. He later won Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year honors. Suzuki's "Shinkansen Homer" in Kauai first series against Hilo at home is still talked about in the islands. His bullet train homer hit the top of a roofing building behind right field-- a 500-foot home run--the longest ever seen at Vidinha Field. Suzuki later told a local reporter he learned his smooth swing from his father who encouraged him to practice swinging with a coal shovel.
Oakland Athletics' Jason Giambi, who in that same inaugural year, was an up-and-coming slugger in the Oakland Athletics organization. Giambi enjoyed the short 315-foot leftfield fence in Kauai's Vidinha stadium. The 6-foot-3 Giambi even loped around the bases fast enough to log an inside the park homerun after smashing one into the wall off Honolulu pitcher Kyle Sebach. Giambi has gone on to become one of MLB's true power hitters.
Alex Ochoa went from HWB in 1993 to 9 years in the majors. Back in 1993, no one at the league-opener on Oahu will forget the throw from right field executed by Ochoa. "The best gun in the minor leagues" gunned down Shannon Penn with a 300-foot throw ripped from just short of the right field track to home plate in Rainbow Stadium. Ochoa became a journeyman outfielder for eight seasons in the Major Leagues before signing with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Central League in 2003. He was featured in an Inside Sports story titled "The New Arms Race."
Other HWB players that went on to stellar careers in the Major Leagues include Tadahito Iguchi and A.J. Pierznski of the Chicago White, Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies, Michael Barrett of the Chicago Cubs, Adam Kennedy of the Lops Angeles Angels, Mark Kotsay of the Oakland A's, Preston Wilson of the Washington Nationals, and Randy Winn of the San Francisco Giants.
When HWB opened in 1993, with 16 of the 28 Major League club systems sending players, the Japanese professional teams providing players included the Orix Blue Waves, Daiei Hawks, and Nippon Ham Fighters.
The 1993 HWB teams and stadiums were: the Hilo Stars (Vulcan Field, Hilo), the Honolulu Sharks (Rainbow Stadium, Honolulu), Kauai Emeralds (Vidinha Stadium, Lihue, Kauai), and the Maui Stingrays (War Memorial Stadium, Wailuku, Maui).
The Hilo Stars was the only team with players from Japan in the U.S.A.
In the inaugural year, the Stars won the HWB League Championship.
Attendance for the inaugural season was 53,383...exceeding the 50,000 Pro Bowl attendance, Hawaii's only other professional sports.
The 1994 season started with eleven local boys, or adopted local boys, in the line-ups, including former Rainbows Matt Apana, Joey Meyer, Todd Takayoshi, and Joey Vierra, former Hawaii Pacific University star Ben Agbayani, and former Baldwin High star Kekoa Dafun. Other isle players included Kahi Villa, Arthur Davis, Josh Halemanu, Keith Luuloa and Randy Montalvo. Teams and three stadiums remained the same. In Hilo, Stars General Manager Clyde Nekoba helped create the "Miracle of Wong Stadium," by turning a city-owned facility, used primarily for Little League, into the home of a professional baseball franchise. Volunteers painted and cleaned. Some 450 bleacher seats were added down the foul lines. The fences were moved back, a new warning track was added, and new lights were installed. Only two seasons old, the league made the history books. In the 1994 season, the Maui Stingrays became the first professional team in the United States to field women players among the men.
The league held its first All-Star Game pitting a an all-U.S.A. team against one with international players. The U.S.A. squad won. Hiroki Kokubo, on the international team, was named MVP.
That year, the Kauai Emeralds won the League Championship.
Attendance jumped in the second year to 69,533.
The 1995 season introduced a "home-stay" program where players stayed with a family in Hawaii during the season, making the time in Hawaii even more memorable. Frank Kudo became president of the league, which enjoyed record advance ticket sales, providing proof that fans were enjoying the games. At that point 30% of HWB's alumni had already made it to The Bigs. Promotions like "The Blues Brothers Act" Sam Sato's Saimin Eating Contest, Aloha Poi Eating Contest, Ballpark Bingo! Thirsty Thursdays, and dozens of other colorful fan-friendly promotions made for exciting times at the ballpark. Mascot "Major Mynah's" antics added to the fun.
Some 106,787 fans league wide came out to support their home teams and some 50 charities benefited through fund raising ticket sale promotions.
The Maui Stingrays won the Championship title.
For the 1996 season, the West Oahu CaneFires, homebased at venerable Hans L'Orange Park in Waipahu, joined in place of the Kauai Emeralds. The new club blended the talents of talented top prospects from the Major League organizations, with major leaguers from the Japan Professional Baseball League and the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization. The Club directory listed Kel Ide as "Interpreter." In Honolulu, "MegaByte" the Sharks 7'3" mascot roamed Rainbow Stadium to the ominous "Jaws" music on the loudspeakers, while meeting the kids, playing pranks on the adults and teasing umpires. The international look of baseball continued to develop in the league as Korean players also joined the Hilo Stars organization.
The Stingrays took the Championship trophy again.
Total attendance for the league hit 112,761.
In 1997, HWB again fielded four teams for a 54-game season that was held mid-0ctober through mid-December. By that year, 93 alumni from HWB were already playing in the Major Leagues. The experience in Hawaii was unique for all the ball players. While the fans enjoyed Teriyaki plates, Portuguese been soup, and sushi along with traditional hot dogs and pop corn, the pro players competed in the world's only league featuring international players.
The Hawaii Winter Baseball league returned for its sixth season in 2006, and the North Shore Honu claimed the league title with a 5-1 victory over the Waikiki BeachBoys. After the nine-year "rain delay," HWB received a warm welcome by fans that frequented Hans L'Orange Park and Les Murakami Stadium. A season total of 42,107 fans poured through stadium turnstiles to enjoy the sights and sounds of professional baseball's return Hawaii.
Thus far, HWB's 2006 class has made quite an impact on major league rosters. Rick Vanden Hurk (BeachBoys) is now a starting pitcher for the Florida Marlins. Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy (CaneFires) have pitched for the New York Yankees in pressure-packed starting roles. Joe Thatcher (Honu) made his big league debut with the San Diego Padres as a reliever, and continues to work out of the 'pen. And, Nate Schierholtz (BeachBoys) spent considerable time with the San Francisco Giants as an outfielder, and even delivered a game-winning, walk-off single during his stint.
In 2007, the league played all its Oahu games at Hans L'Orange Park while renovations take place at Murakami Stadium. The league also showcased games for the outer island audiences, as series were held at both Francis Wong Stadium in Hilo on the Big Island, and Iron Maehara Stadium in Kahului, Maui. The North Shore Honu went on to win a second consecutive league title by virtue of owning the league's best record after the Championship Game against the Waikiki BeachBoys was rained out.
The 2008 HWB campaign will yet again provide baseball fans with the opportunity to watch and interact with some of the best young baseball players in the World. The league returns to the venerable Murakami Stadium which will be ready after a well-deserved facelift. The season kicks off on Saturday, Sept. 27, and runs through the Championship game on Sunday, Nov. 16.
Hawaii is in store for another exciting year of HWB action, as players and fans alike Catch the Dream!