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Friday, August 22, 2014         

FURTHER REVIEW


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Wong's wait to go pro proved pivotal for Hawaii baseball

By Dave Reardon

POSTED:



Has it really been three years already?

Three years since the end of the Colton (Brennan) Era and the start of the Kolten (Wong) Era in University of Hawaii sports?

As Wong laces them up for his final game at Les Murakami Stadium today, it's easy to see his impact on Rainbows baseball has been at least as significant as Brennan's on Warriors football.

On-field performance-wise? Hard to compare because the two games are so different. For now, I'll just say I've got 10 fingers, and if I'm using them to count off UH's greatest in all sports since the turn of the millenium, they both easily make it before I get to the first pinky. (We'll have to wait at least two more weeks for the complete body of work to see where Wong stacks up among the all-time Rainbows baseball players; in my mind, he's a lock for the starting nine.)

Brennan and Wong were similar in their loyalty to Hawaii. Brennan returned for his senior season and the Sugar rush. Wong declined a pro contract coming out of Kamehameha-Hawaii in 2008 in favor of enrolling at UH.

It's easy to view Brennan's decision to make the pros wait (turned down potential millions) as more sacrificial and less pragmatic than Wong's (turned down $75,000). But that would be oversimplifying — while it was a business decision in some ways, Wong also followed his heart after the Twins picked him in the 16th round.

"I thought I was better than that. I figured in three years I would prove I was worth more. With $75,000 you can only do so much. A college education is worth a lot more than that. But when you're 17 that seems like a lot of money," Wong said.

"Highlights? All three years of playing in front of the home fans. Being a Rainbow was living a dream from the time I was a little kid."

A couple of years ago, there was talk of UH ditching baseball, or maybe getting a new coach. Now the stands are full and the team is winning and the program making money. Player most responsible for this? Kolten Wong, of course.

THE MONEY YEAR can make team players selfish. That wasn't an issue with Wong or closer Lenny Linsky, juniors poised to be chosen high in the draft. Some scouts say first round and bonuses in seven figures for both.

"I'm really proud of those guys," UH coach Mike Trapasso said. "They didn't let this affect them and just went about their business.

"Kolten didn't expand his strike zone, he didn't try to do too much. And by doing that, he put the team and himself in the position they're in now."

For the team, that's first in the WAC. For Wong, another year of consistent production that projects him as a near-future major leaguer.

Wong has walked nearly twice as many times as he has struck out this season, flirted with .400, and stolen 21 bases in 48 games. His six homers aren't impressive, until you project a number for a full pro season; it translates to around 20 — more than adequate power for a middle infielder, especially considering baseball's small-ball trend.

His homers tend to be dramatic and clutch. There were three in one game (all needed for the win) his freshman year. A shot to tie a WAC tournament game against Louisiana Tech last year, followed by another to win that game. He replicated that feat against Portland this season.

WONG SIGNED AUTOGRAPHS long after Friday's doubleheader, maybe for a future Rainbow or two. Inspiration for local players will be part of his legacy. But he's still focused on what the 2011 squad might accomplish.

"I hope I'm thought of as someone who was there for the team, and that I took UH to a place where it's never been before."

That would take some doing, since Hawaii has been to the NCAA championship game, albeit 31 years ago. But who's to say this pitching-rich and resilient group can't make a deep postseason run?

"It's a weird team this year. We never let anything bother us," Wong said. "No matter what happened the day before."

One more year? Everyone but Wong himself rules it out.

It's time. We always knew this was a three-year deal.

And the UH baseball program and its fans are the richer for it. So, too, will be Kolten Wong in a few weeks ... in his case, quite literally. Quite a bit more than $75,000.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com.






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