Becoming a professional takes some time in this line of work.
The variables involved for each player to become a pro are hard to predict. For some, it takes 150 pro at-bats. For others, it could be years before they truly understand the game and their bodies well enough to successfully face the game’s daily demands.
Witnessing transformations like these is a real treat. It often comes about gradually, as the player slowly displays all the traits of a professional player.
Our manager, Cory Snyder, and I have watched with pleasure as one of our young players has blossomed into a true pro.
I became acquainted with Mike Higa during my lone offseason as an assistant coach at UH-Hilo. One of my duties there was to recruit players, and it was during that process that I met Higa.
I was actually calling former longtime Pearl City High School coach Mel Seki to ask about one of his pitchers. During the course of that conversation, Seki asked me to please consider another player of his. Seki said the kid was undersized, but supercharged.
During his tenure at Pearl City, Seki had seen dozens of his former players move on to the collegiate ranks. Yet he told me that his little second baseman was the one he felt could really do something.
So we took Higa into consideration and quickly offered him a scholarship to come to Hilo the next fall. At Hilo, Higa established himself as one of the finest hitters in the program’s history, capping a decorated career by hitting .415 for the then-NCAA Division I Vulcans.
His senior season, I touched bases again with Higa, this time as a scout for a major league team. He had just torched the University of Hawaii during a three-game series at Murakami Stadium, including a homer off of hard-throwing reliever Matt Daly.
Although he drew considerable attention from MLB scouts, Higa went undrafted. At 5-foot-7, his draft prospects were bleak.
But I never forgot Higa, and a year later I signed him for spring training when I was the pitching coach for the Southern Illinois Miners. As always, Higa handled the bat well, earning the utility infielder spot on our roster. He was with us for half a season before being released in July.
When I accepted the job as pitching coach with Na Koa Ikaika Maui this offseason, I again brought Higa with me. I knew he was still figuring out his role in professional baseball. Last season was tough on him as he became a bench player for the first time in his life, and I still believed he could become a solid pro if given the chance to mature.
It is apparent to Snyder and me that Higa’s time is coming. Mike began our season platooning with Gered Mochizuki at second base, as Mochizuki battled to get back to form after a tough spring training.
As planned, Mochizuki took over and took off, as Higa settled back into the utility role successfully, providing us a string of quality at-bats off the bench. He still made some rookie mistakes, and at times tried to do too much as he continued through the process of becoming a pro. Slowly but surely, he began to make fewer mistakes on the field, ran the bases smarter and came into his own at the plate.
When our regular third baseman, Keoni Ruth, was acquired by the Phillies last week, Higa was pressed into everyday duty at third base, and he has really been something to see.
Now batting .331 for the season, Higa has become a presence at the plate. He makes fewer rookie mistakes with his approach, and pitchers have had to pitch him differently, and he has continued to produce. Defensively, he has been a diving, whirling, gunning cloud of dust, making one big play after another.
Last night, we took a 2-0 lead into the ninth against one of the top hitting clubs in our league, the Edmonton Capitals. With four former major league players in their lineup, the Capitals can flat-out hit, so every out was a big one.
With our closer Jamie Vermilyea in to shut the door, we got the first two outs quickly on a 4-6-3 double play. The final out was a true gem, as Higa laid out to his left and made a diving stop on former major leaguer Alex Prieto’s hard grounder toward the hole. He then popped back up to his feet and threw a bullet across the diamond to get the final out by a couple of steps.
Higa’s time at third was supposed to be a stop-gap until we were able to acquire someone with more experience. But now we’re not sure we need to. If Higa continues to play the way he has, we may have found our guy, and it’ll be a lot of fun to watch him over the next 30 games.
Brendan Sagara, a Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo product, is the pitching coach for Na Koa Ikaika, Maui’s team in the Golden Baseball League.