POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 5, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:48 a.m. HST, May 5, 2011
You don't have to believe in the supernatural to understand the Moanalua baseball team and its relationship with a star pitcher from its 2010 team, Zach Manago.
But it helps. Some things can't be explained by the laws of everyday rational thinking.
Just about everything has gone right for Na Menehune this season. Sure, they've got talent and experience (12 seniors on a team in its third-straight state tournament). But ask the players, like senior co-captain and outfielder Mike Egami, and they'll tell you there's something else at work.
"There are some bounces where we just have to say, ‘That was Zach.' Coming back against Pearl City? That's unheard of. When you get all the breaks, it has to be more than luck."
Manago died last December, struck down by a hit-and-run driver while bicycling with friends. Na Menehune believe the tragedy gave the 2010 Moanalua graduate more time with them, and that he guides them through turmoil on the diamond after they decided as a team to dedicate the season to him.
Who wants to argue?
Believing in Zach has gotten them this far, to a 13-1 record and the Oahu Interscholastic Association championship. Today, they open state tournament play with a quarterfinal game against Hilo.
"He'll still be there in spirit with us," shortstop and co-captain Tim Arakawa said. "You get a feeling that he's there with us. Especially in the OIA championship game. We were ahead in the seventh inning, but running into trouble. I took off my hat, looked at his initials, and it was like I could hear him telling me, ‘Don't worry, you'll get through this.' It's like we have a 10th player on the field."
SPORTS IS FULL of stories of teams that ride the emotion of tragedy ... for a time. But then something goes wrong, and there's nothing left to give from empty tanks. Deflation ensues.
But this never happened to Moanalua. Na Menehune played for Zach and each other all season. They never suffered a letdown. They never crashed.
"When we first started the season, it was a lot of emotion. But for some odd reason, we kept our heads level while still playing with emotion," Arakawa said. "It helped us, but we didn't let it get to us. Zach played with a lot of emotion, but he knew how to handle it. If he walked somebody, he knew to take a moment, clear his head, before the next batter.
"That's what we learned from Zach, to channel emotion and not get down on yourself.
"Playing for Zach works both ways."
Passion, and control.
"I don't think he ever had an enemy," Moanalua coach Scott Yamada said. "He lit a fire under this senior class. They play for him. When we broke, we used to say, ‘TEAM.' Now we say ‘ZACH.' "
NEARLY EVERYTHING CHANGED for the Manago family when it lost Zach, a young man described as friendly and quiet, popular and quirky, free-spirited and thoughtful, talented and down to earth, practical and spiritual. "We miss that guy so much," said his father, Dennis.
But a constant remained, like a comfortable old glove: The presence of Moanalua baseball in the family's sphere, and vice versa.
"When I'm around the kids it makes me feel happy," said Daphne, Zach's mother. "Our home was the gathering house."
Actually, it still is. And, actually, it's Grandma's place. This week, May Tome's house in Aiea — as often before — hosted a Moanalua baseball team gathering.
"We try to spend as much time as possible with his family," Arakawa said. "Almost every weekend there was a barbecue. Why should we change that?
"We were more than teammates. We were all close friends. He was a very positive influence on our lives, and he had his life going in the right direction. What he was doing was something for the rest of us to shoot for. He was going to college (at Hawaii Pacific) and playing baseball. He was a pioneer for the rest of us."
DAPHNE DIDN'T LIKE Zach's new hobby. She feared for his safety, riding at night.
"But he would get upset if I said anything about it," she said. "And he looked forward to the rides so much. Especially this one."
Zach was quickly developing yet another group of close friends, the bicyclists.
"You could see it and sense it," Yamada said. "In that short period of time he had a real impact on them."
It was a few days before Christmas. Riding with about 40 other cyclists on Kamehameha Highway near Leilehua Golf Course, Zach was hit from behind. The driver kept going. The cyclists searched for and found the car involved in the accident, leading to the arrest of a suspect.
The Hawaii Bicycling League is organizing an around-the-island ride in Zach's name.
"When you're riding on the road, you usually don't think about (getting hit). We have lights and we're safe, but you don't think about it very much," said Vance Kihano-Yoshimura, a cyclist and close friend of Zach. "But what happened with Zach made us more aware. Guys are getting more lights, and are checking around them more often."
Dennis Manago said his son's first term paper at HPU was about cycling safety. "If we can help people realize what their actions can cause, that's what we're talking about."
THE MOANALUA BASEBALL team has visited the site of the accident twice as a group. Both times they left energized, their sense of mission and focus sharpened.
As usual, the Manago family will be there when Moanalua plays baseball today. And that includes Zach. He's supposed to bring a good hop or two.
And the sunshine.
"Zach will clear the weather up for us," Tim Arakawa said. "He wants to watch some baseball."