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Saturday, December 20, 2014         

LIFE IN THE MINORS


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Maui-based squad hurdles challenges

By Brendan Sagara

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We're just about a week and a half away from the midpoint of our season, and one thing is for certain -- competing in the Golden Baseball League has proven to be quite an adventure.

When I accepted the job as pitching coach with the new minor league team based in Maui at the turn of the year, I knew that my new gig would bring me new challenges, broaden my horizons, and also allow me to live and work in one state for 12 consecutive months for the first time in more than a decade.

And it has done all of that. New challenges came in the form of assessing and developing players to compete in a league I had certainly heard about over the years, but had never seen firsthand. Helping put together our ballclub with our manager, former major league slugger Cory Snyder, was a tedious and rewarding task, as we assembled a roster that is a blend of experience, youth and of course, a local flair.

When we set out to find and sign players for the season, we knew it was very important to seek out the right players with local ties; players from Hawaii with professional experience, and a couple of rookies from the 50th state with talent and upside, players we could help develop into legitimate professionals.

In the end, eight of the 22 players we broke camp with were from Hawaii. Veteran minor league shortstop Rex Rundgren, a Mid-Pacific graduate and 10-year pro made our opening-day squad, as did former San Diego Padres farmhand Keoni Ruth and longtime minor league outfielder Mark Okano. Second-year pro Michael Higa and former New York Met Gered Mochizuki opened the season sharing time at second base.

Left-handed pitcher Kaimi Mead also made our roster after spending the past two seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization. The pleasant surprises of our spring training came in the form of backup catcher Jowen Murray-Thornton and our reserve outfielder Paul Nishimura, who were selected for spring training after attending our team's open tryout in February.

Each day, I take great pride in watching all of our local boys run out onto the field together. To me, it's one of the biggest reasons I took the job on Maui. The opportunity to bring together some of the best minor league talent from the state, and help deserving local players make their way into professional baseball was a great attraction to me.

In addition to our local boys, we were able to sign two former major leaguers, and several others who played at the AAA and AA levels with MLB organizations. Two of our relievers, Harold Williams and Kent Tsujimoto, first became acquainted with the 50th state as members of the Waikiki Beach Boys of the Hawaii Winter Baseball League.

This season has been a homecoming of sorts for left-hander Donald Brandt as well. Born and raised in Northern California, the former Milwaukee Brewers prospect is of native Hawaiian descent, and jumped at the opportunity to pitch in front of family here in Hawaii.

So far the season has been a success in many ways. The GBL splits the season in half, as do many minor leagues, with the winner of each half in each division earning a spot in the playoffs. With eight games remaining in the first half, we lead the South Division by a game over the Yuma Scorpions, at 22-13.

Life as the only team isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has not come without some hurdles. Because of travel costs, we have to play all of our 45 road games in four long road trips. With three teams in Canada, another in Mexico, and teams in California, Arizona, Utah, and of course Hawaii, the GBL is arguably the most geographically challenged in minor league sports.

Our current trip has us in our fourth city, our second country, and our third state in two weeks. Packing, unpacking, flying, busing, crossing the border, unpacking and then re-packing four times in 14 days can be a pain.

Sure, the other side of the coin means we have two-week-long homestands, but this first half has been very challenging, as we will end our half with 19 home games and 26 road dates.

But I think, I hope, we would be hard pressed to find a more challenging road trip than our season-opening 18-day journey through three Canadian cities. We held water on that trip, going just under .500, and I experienced something I had never been through in professional baseball.

Just getting to Victoria, British Columbia, for our first stop was an ordeal. After a standard 6-hour or so flight to Seattle, we had a 6-hour, overnight wait in the airport lobby before we could catch a ferry from Seattle to Victoria in the morning. As you can imagine, a 3-hour boat ride at the crack of dawn for a bunch of ballplayers was a little much, but we got through it, and chalked it up as a new experience.

But it was in our next city, Calgary, where things got really weird. I've had the good fortune to travel to many different cities in many parts of the continent in my years in professional baseball. From California to Louisiana, Texas to North Dakota and even three different Canadian cities, I've been able to do my fair share of exploring around North America. But May 28th in Calgary provided me something I've never seen before.

Cruising around the mall in Calgary with our radio guy in the early afternoon before our bus to the field, nothing seemed unusual. We were just killing time, grabbing some cold weather items and looking forward to a good lunch at the mall's food court. About an hour into our trip, we got word that our game had been postponed due to wet field conditions. We were relieved, as the high that day was in the 20s, and no one was looking forward to playing baseball in that kind of weather.

So we continued to putter around the mall and I began my search for a jacket that would provide me sufficient fleece-lined warmth with a water-resistant shell. After that success, we began to make our way toward the exit, to catch a cab back to the hotel.

It was then that I made my astonishing discovery. Walking toward the glass double doors down the hall, I saw what first appeared to be heavy rain falling under the streetlights. But as I inched closer to the doors, I realized it was the white stuff, it was just a couple of days from June, and it was snowing in Calgary.

The snow fell hard and it fell heavy. When we made our way out of the mall, there were snow mounds in the parking lot, on parked cars, on the edge of the sidewalk. And the next day, I was a part of a snow-out. Our game was called on account of snow.

Perhaps traveling from Maui, where the weather was in the mid 80s to the frigid, apparently snow-covered coldness of Calgary provided cause for even more shock. But not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would have a game snowed out. But we did.

A month and a half into our season, and all is well. Na Koa Ikaika Maui is hanging on to first place with a week to go. Two more days on this road trip before we get to go home and we can't wait.

At least we know there won't be any snow back on Maui.

Brendan Sagara, a Leilehua and UH-Hilo product, is the pitching coach for the Na Koa Ikaika in the Golden League's team on Maui.






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