KISSIMMEE, Fla. » On a recent day at Astros camp, Hawaiian music was playing in the clubhouse and there was Jerome Williams, proudly wearing a hat showing the flag of his home state.
There have been 38 players in major league history who were born in Hawaii, according to BaseballReference.com, though not all of them are Hawaiian. Like Williams, fellow Houston pitcher Scott Feldman was also born on Oahu, but his parents moved to the island a couple of years before his birth for his FBI agent father’s job.
Williams, a 30-something mentor to the young Astros, was born to a Hawaiian mother and an African-American father who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Hawaii in his late teens because of his affinity for the television show "Hawaii Five-0."
He said people are often surprised when they learn he is Hawaiian.
"Every time I go to a new team or meet new people the first thing they see is the outside," Williams said. "I tell them I’m from Hawaii and they say: "What, was your dad in the military?"’
In 2013, there were fewer than 10 major leaguers who were born in the islands, notably Maui products Shane Victorino, with the Red Sox, and Kurt Suzuki, now with the Twins.
"That fraternity is so tight, we’re always going to be tight-knit," Williams said. "We always try to support each other. I know every last one of them."
He also tries to help younger guys from the state who are drafted because he knows the unique difficulties of adjusting to life away from the islands.
"It’s tough for kids coming from Hawaii because it’s so isolated from the mainland U.S.," Williams said. "When we come to the mainland it’s real fast for us. You have to grow up real quick and some kids can’t handle that because in Hawaii it’s so laid back."
It was a lesson that Williams learned the hard way.
The right-hander was a first-round pick of the Giants in 1999 and he made his major league debut four years later at just 21. He went 17-14 with a 3.93 ERA over the next three seasons. He was then traded and had a solid year with the Cubs before struggling in 2006 and seeing his ERA balloon to 7.30. He signed with the Nationals in 2007 and was released after going 0-5 in six starts.
He was overweight, had developed a reputation as being lazy and couldn’t get another major league gig.
"When I was coming up with the Giants I was a pretty good player, I was a top prospect a couple of years," he said. "Got to the big leagues at the young age of 21. Then I fell into a mode where I didn’t think anyone could take my spot and I didn’t even work at it."
"That was the downfall for me," he said. "I didn’t take advantage of everything and I didn’t do it right."
He spent the next four years bouncing around in the Independent League, playing winter ball in various countries and even pitching in Taiwan one year. It was a trying time for Williams, who has four children.
"I wanted to give it up but I couldn’t," he said. "I wanted my kids to see me succeed instead of seeing me fail."
He started 2011 in the Independent League, but by August he’d joined the Los Angeles Angels and appeared in his first major league game since May 15, 2007. He went 4-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 10 games that season to earn a job in 2012. He also spent last season with the Angels before signing as a free agent with Houston.
"I just told myself if I do get back to where I need to be I was going to do it right," he said. "And I’ve been doing it right ever since."
Manager Bo Porter knows that Williams will be helpful to Houston’s young pitchers.
"You can learn a lot from someone else if you’re willing to listen," Porter said. "Him sitting down and having some of those conversations with some of our younger guys, of being a former prospect and going through all the different changes that he had to go through to be where he’s at in his career, I think it’s very beneficial for our younger guys to have that kind of experience sitting on our ball club."
Though he’s one of the most veteran players on Houston’s roster, Williams believes he can gain as much from the youngsters as they can from him.
"I always say that the day that I don’t learn something new is the day I quit," he said. "I’m still here, so obviously I don’t know everything and I’m still going to learn. I’m 32 and I’ve been playing for a long time, but I still can learn things."
Kristie Rieken, Associated Press