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Friday, August 22, 2014         

LIFE IN THE MINORS


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Pitching coaches are happiest at home

By Brendan Sagara

POSTED:



It seems like we're a lot farther away from the beginning of May than we actually are. It's hard for me to imagine that it has only been four months since we opened our spring training on Maui.

At times, memories of spring training are crystal clear, as if they happened just a couple of days ago. At other times, it seems like it was an eternity away. So much has changed, yet so much has stayed the same.

Over the course of our season, we have endured many changes in scenery. We opened the season with a frigid 14-game road trip to Canada that even saw us have two of our games against the Calgary Vipers snowed out. After a two-week homestand, we returned to the road, making the trip to Tijuana, Mexico, which was an experience in itself. Following that series, we returned across the border and made stops in Tucson, Ariz., and St. George, Utah, where the daily temperatures were north of 100 degrees each day. We completed that road trip with a stop in Southern California.

Things got really interesting on our last regular-season road trip of the season, when we visited Yuma, Ariz. During our five-game series we played in temperatures over 110 degrees, and also lived through some strange summer desert storm that flash-flooded the field and brought hail with it as well.

What has been constant for us are the faces in our dugout. When we finished our regular season this past week on Maui, we did so with 17 of the same 22 players we had in our spring training. We lost two players — Keoni Ruth and Jamie Vermilyea — who were acquired by major league organizations, two guys retired and one was traded during our season-opening road trip.

When word got out early this offseason that an independent minor league baseball team was going to play on Maui this season, I was certainly interested. I had been in professional baseball for well over a decade, and had never had the opportunity to work at home for a season. I always told myself, and my fiancee Michelle, that if a team was indeed going to be on Maui, I would like to be a part of it.

Fortunately for me, the stars aligned, and in December I got a phone call from team manager Cory Snyder, offering me the pitching coach job. At the time, his plan was to have a handful of local players to build around, to create interest in the team.

Having scouted Hawaii for major league teams for the past few years, I was able to get an in-depth look at a lot of young players and that helped me greatly in helping put together our roster this season. At one point, we had 11 players from the state of Hawaii on our ballclub as we set Golden Baseball League records for wins and winning percentage by finishing the season 56-26.

Our pitching staff set all-time league records for team ERA, shutouts and saves, as we also led the league in stolen bases, with 153 in 82 games. Our left-hander Donald Brandt set a league mark of his own, going 15-0 during the regular season to set the GBL wins record.

Our all-star second baseman Gered Mochizuki, who I've taken with me everywhere for three years, had an amazing season for us, establishing himself as one of the top players in our league by batting .384 with 27 doubles and 22 stolen bases. I've enjoyed witnessing his growth as a ballplayer each season.

There were many nights during the season that our entire infield was from Hawaii, with Ruth (Kamehameha) or Michael Higa (Pearl City, UH Hilo) at third, Rex Rundgren (Mid-Pacific) at short, Mochizuki (Baldwin) at second and either Chester Wilson or Jowen Murray-Thornton (both from St. Louis) at first base. One night, seven of our nine starters in the field were from the 50th state, as Kaimi Mead (Roosevelt, HPU) got the start on the mound with Mark Okano (Mark Okano) in left and Paul Nishimura (University HS, HPU) in right.

It has been a huge source of pride for me to represent Hawaii again. I did not forget how significant it was to be from Hawaii, on a team from Hawaii. I wore the "Hawaii" across the chest of my jersey during my college days at the University of Hawaii-Hilo with a lot of pride. But when we stood just before the first-base line on opening night and held my cap over my heart during "Hawaii Ponoi," it was even more special than I thought it would be.

This season has really been a blessing to me. Over the years, people from the mainland always asked me why the youth teams from our state did so well. First off I told them that there are some talented ballplayers here, and that the players from Hawaii have a lot of heart.

Then I told them that when you get a group of talented local boys together, they bond together and fight for each other. And that's been the story of our season. Through adversity, tough road trips in three different countries, and often playing teams with bigger, stronger-looking players, our boys didn't have any quit in them.

The imported players on our club, who hail from Japan, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and various parts of the U.S., have bought in and given us outstanding team chemistry and talent.

A win tonight would win the South Division series for us, as we are tied with the Orange County Flyers 2-2 in our best-of-five series. A win would push us into the league championship series.

No matter what happens from here, I will remain very proud of what our team has accomplished. With so many truly good guys, good players and local boys, many whom I've known and watched play since they were in high school, I consider myself privileged to be a member of this team, Hawaii's first professional baseball team since the Hawaii Islanders left town far too long ago.

As this is my final column for the season, I would like to thank the Star-Advertiser readers for following my travels in this strange world we call minor league baseball. Once again, thank you for coming along for the ride.

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






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