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Friday, October 24, 2014         

RAINBOW BASEBALL


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Workin’ for a livin’

Kolten Wong always wanted to be a pro baseball player. He's made it a labor of love to do it the right way

By Billy Hull

POSTED:


WAC BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
» Today Hawaii vs. San Jose State 4 p.m., KKEA, 1420-AM

MESA, Ariz. » The alarm clock always rings early on a Saturday morning.

The Hawaii Rainbows could have the weekend off or maybe just finished a Friday doubleheader. The pattern stays the same.

The sun barely beats Kolten Wong out of bed, but by the time its rays bring downtown Honolulu to life, the 5-foot-9 Hilo native is working up a sweat.

The Kalani High School softball team begins practice at 8, so Wong has to be at the school by 7 to get in a full hour’s work with his father, Kaha, who makes the trip to Oahu from the Big Island every weekend.

The workout is never the same. One day half of the time is spent bunting. Other times, every ball Wong hits is meant to go opposite field.

He’ll be penciled in third in the order at second base for the Rainbows later in the day, but a workout is never to be missed.

This is how it is with the Wong family, ever since the day Kolten decided he wanted to be a major league baseball player.

“I WAS AT a major league game for the first time, way up in the nosebleed section,” Kolten recalled. “It was at Angels Stadium and I was in the stands looking at all the fans and watching the guys play and I turned to my dad and said, ‘This is what I want to be. I want to be a professional baseball player.’ ”

Kaha Wong, who played college ball at USC, spent two years in the minor leagues with the Reno Silver Sox in Class-A before returning to Hilo.

A father of three, Kaha made it perfectly clear to his oldest son what that decision would entail.

“Kolten, it’s going to be hard,” he said. “We’ve got to work every day. On Christmas, we’ll be working out. On your birthday, we’ll be working out. When your friends are having fun, we’re going to work out.”

Kaha knew what it would take, but it was Kolten who had the idea of how to get there.

“We used to hit into a net in the back yard when one day Kolten said, ‘Dad, why don’t you make a batting cage?’ ” Kaha said. “I didn’t think there’d be a lot of interest (running a batting cage) business until one day I had the opportunity to purchase four cages in Hilo.”

Since retiring from professional baseball, Kaha worked different random jobs to support his family, but never got a regular job “because I wanted to concentrate on my kids.”

In the close-knit town of Hilo, Kolten had become friends with UFC star B.J. Penn, whose popularity was exploding with the sudden rise of mixed martial arts as a mainstream sport.

The Penn family ran a gym to help train kids in jiu-jitsu and B.J.’s father, Jay Dee, struck up a friendship with Kaha.

“He told me, ‘Kaha, you played pro ball, train kids like how we train kids.’ ” Kaha said. “He said he’ll put the concrete down as a favor to me ... and to make a long story short, he helped me set it all up.”

Today, Kaha runs a business with more than 100 kids coming to him to work on their swings. But what he started back in the day was a business for two: Kaha and Kolten.

IT SEEMED THE PAYOFF was at hand.

The 2-hour sessions Kolten’s father would watch his son cut down a tree with an axe to improve his power. The hours spent in the cage every day after school, swing after swing, working toward perfection.

Kolten was helping his dad coach his brother, Kean, in the junior Little League World Series in Michigan when a scout from the Minnesota Twins, who drafted Wong in the 16th round out of high school in 2008, met with the two.

The scout put the contract in front of Kolten. It was for $75,000.

This was the payoff the two had worked so hard for, so it came as a surprise to Kaha when Kolten responded the way he did.

“I looked at it and said, ‘I don’t know about this, Dad. After taxes, it’s not even that much,” Kolten said. “In three years I’d only be 20 and more mature and I’d get a chance to play college at UH.”

Kolten said his dad seemed “iffy” about the decision, but he himself had no doubts. Kolten handed the contract back to the scout, saying, “Here you go, sir. I’m going to college.”

THREE YEARS LATER, the Rainbows have enjoyed more success during that span than they have since the early 1990s. Hawaii has won a Western Athletic Conference tournament championship and a regular-season title in the past two years, feats they hadn’t accomplished since 1992.

Hawaii finished 2011 ranked 17th nationally in attendance, averaging 3,409 per game, a 15-year high. Turnstile crowds were up almost 11 percent over 2010 and 60 percent from three years ago.

Most of it can be traced back to Kolten.

On Tuesday, Wong was named first-team All-WAC for the third time. He’s currently tied for second in school history with 24 homers and is seventh with 374 total bases despite playing only three seasons.

He wasted no time showing his talent as a freshman, mashing three home runs in one game against Loyola Marymount.

The Rainbows likely don’t make an NCAA regional last year if not for Wong’s game-tying and game-winning home runs against Louisiana Tech on the first day of the WAC tournament.

He repeated the feat in a win over Portland this season, on his way to being named to Baseball America’s midseason All-America team.

Wong has a year of eligibility remaining, but seeing him in a Hawaii uniform in 2012 is a pipe dream.

He was recently invited to attend the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft on June 6 in Secaucus, N.J., and many mock drafts have him projected as a first-round pick.

That $75,000 he turned down in 2008 looks to be the best decision he’s ever made.

But no matter when his named is called in 11 days, Kolten knows it’s only the beginning.

“He knows no matter where he goes, he still has to work,” Kaha said. “People will still doubt him, people will say he’s too small. But I always tell him, take a look at where you want to be, because just being a minor-leaguer and riding those 12-hour bus rides to games isn’t fun.”

It’s why whatever happens on draft day, one thing is for certain.

That alarm clock will ring bright and early the next morning.

And Kolten Wong will start swinging away.

KOLTEN WONG
5 feet 9, junior second baseman
CAREER STATS
Year GP-GS AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI TB SB-ATT BB AVG
2009 58-58 226 46 77 21 2 11 52 135 11-15 25 .341
2010 63-63 249 57 89 15 4 7 40 133 19-26 36 .357
2011 53-53 192 46 72 10 3 6 49 106 22-28 39 .375
Total 174-174 667 149 238 46 9 24 141 374 52-69 100 .357






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