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Sunday, April 20, 2014         

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From sand to snow, it's still baseball

By Brendan Sagara

POSTED:



After more than a decade in professional baseball spent pitching and then coaching in various cities throughout the U.S., I had a summer at home last year, when I was hired as pitching coach for Na Koa Ikaika Maui, the independent minor league team that played in the Golden Baseball League.

It was a grand season on the field, as we set records for wins in a season on the way to winning the league's Southern Division and advancing to the GBL's championship series in September. Our pitching staff led the league in virtually every statistical category and five of our 11 pitchers had their contracts acquired by major league baseball organizations. Another was offered a contract to pitch in Japan.

Best of all, I represented Hawaii once again, and provided the opportunity for several local boys to return home and play pro ball in Hawaii, and provide others the opportunity to begin their minor league careers.

It was a league that was geographically diverse, with teams in California, Utah, Arizona, Mexico and Canada, and was a great experience.

A lot can change in a year.

As I have for the past few years, I spent this offseason on Oahu providing baseball instruction and working as a scout for a major league team. But a few changes did happen this offseason, as I got married to my longtime fiancee, moved into a townhouse and accepted a job about as far north as one could possibly go to continue their professional baseball career — as the new pitching coach for the Winnipeg Goldeyes in Manitoba, Canada.

So after eight months of the offseason, I flew out at the end of April and made the very long trek across the border to the "Great White North." I have been to various cities in Canada in past seasons, and actually traveled to coach against the Winnipeg Goldeyes in 2005, as pitching coach for the Gary SouthShore RailCats, then a member of the Northern League. The opportunity to become a member of a franchise with a strong reputation, in a league that is very well run, has been a great opportunity for me.

While the baseball end of my experience on Maui last summer was very good, and the people of Maui were outstanding hosts to us and showed us a lot of aloha, the league and the franchise itself had many financial struggles, and there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding us all season long.

But life in Winnipeg has been pretty good. The ballclub plays in one of the finest facilities in minor league baseball, and is run like a well-oiled machine, which has been a blessing, allowing our staff and players to focus all our energy on baseball.

Winnipeg is a big city, with a population around 700,000 from what I've been told and it certainly feels like it. The team has set me up for the season in a suite hotel in downtown Winnipeg, which is loaded with dozens of high-rise buildings.

Through 21 games we have gone 13-8, good for a half-game behind the St. Paul Saints for the North Division lead. Our lineup features athletic, well-rounded players and our pitching staff is leading the league in a number of statistical categories, including team ERA. We lead the American Association in attendance, averaging more than 5,000 fans per game, and have great support from our community in Winnipeg.

The only drawback in my brief experience in Winnipeg has been the weather. Now I think I have a much greater appreciation for why they call Canada, "The Great White North." When I stepped out of the airport in Winnipeg after clearing customs and walked through the double doors to the parking garage, the cold really hit me. It was biting and pushed right through the sweat pants and fleece pullover I had on.

On the second day I was in Winnipeg, the weather reporters on TV were saying that there was a high probability of snow the following day, on May 29. As I often do, I checked the weather websites and they had similar weather predictions posted. So I stayed up late to watch the snowfall. Being from Hawaii, I obviously don't get too many chances to see snow, so I wanted to capitalize on the opportunity.

So I stayed up late and watched TV on my couch with the drapes to my 23rd story suite wide open. After five hours of futility, I dozed off and awoke at 3 in the morning to see the streets and building of downtown Winnipeg covered in snow. It looked like a scene from a Christmas movie.

Driving through the snow to get to the field the next afternoon was a first for me, as I cautiously steered the car the team rented for me for the season, and tried to avoid fishtailing as I maneuvered through the maze of one-way streets downtown. When I arrived at the stadium, the first thing I did was gaze out at our baseball field, covered in a foot of snow.

And the cold stuck around for a long, long time. I swear I woke the next few days expecting to see snowmen lining the streets. Through the first two weeks of our season, at home and on the road in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota, I don't know if the temperature got above 50 degrees. The game-time temperature in our game this past Monday was in the low 40s.

But today, today was a great day for baseball. After a month of frigid conditions, and weeks of layering myself in fleece jackets, hoodies and long-sleeve shirts, and 17 hours on the bus from Winnipeg down south to Gary, Indiana, we finally found sunshine and it was glorious. I wore shorts and walked out of the hotel in slippers to go get lunch for the first time since I left home in late April. Our game went well, as we defeated the RailCats, 3-2 in 10 innings.

Sure, the early season weather was a little tough to bear for a guy born and raised in Hawaii, but I never got down about it. Rain or shine, snow or sun, I have a good time doing what I do.

———

Brendan Sagara is a former Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo pitcher in his first year as pitching coach with the Winnipeg Goldeyes.






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