It ain’t over till it’s over," Yogi Berra said of baseball. Three weeks after falling short in the championship game of the Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pa., and nearly two months since they left Hawaii on the first leg of their quest for the title, manager Brian Yoshii and the all-star team from Waipio find themselves still in extra innings.
They’ve been greeted with an airport homecoming celebration, mobbed at a Labor Day autograph session in Waikiki, and cheered as they rode a vintage fire engine in the city-sponsored Parade of Champions this past weekend.
It has been a remarkable run for a team that was forced into must-win mode from the outset of the World Series — and responded with five victories to reach the final.
For Yoshii, an information technology vice president at Kaiser Permanente, it was the culmination of a labor of love.
"When I played baseball, I had some really good coaches … really good role models," he says.
"My dad had to work a lot, so I appreciated those coaches. So when I became a father (of four sons), it was kind of my turn to see what I could do to give back to the community. But the biggest thing was I wanted to build a relationship with my sons."
Yoshii’s oldest son turns 20 in November. His youngest, 12-year-old Brysen, was a member of the Waipio team that made it to Williamsport.
Once Brysen gets into high school, Yoshii thinks he might give up coaching youth baseball, although he says he’s likely to stick around in some capacity.
"Maybe I’ll help clean the fields," he says. "Whatever they need me to do."
Question: Did you ever imagine the team would receive this much attention?
Answer: In watching the 2005 and 2008 teams (from Hawaii that won Little League World Series titles), I knew there would be a lot of attention. I also knew through my third son how difficult it is just to get there, so until you get there you really don’t think about it. It’s like you don’t think about things too heavily until they occur, and when they occur it’s a lot more than you can imagine.
Q: What is it about this team that has captured the imagination of the state?
A: I haven’t had a chance to watch the games yet, but there’s something in there that I keep hearing that resonates with people. It’s the humbleness. The sportsmanship. I know there’s a lot of fire in these kids, so I think that’s probably another thing. … I think people are just proud that these kids convey that spirit of never giving up. Having the team fight back … maybe that gives hope to everyone when times are tough.
Q: After the third game against (Columbus) Georgia, you kept telling the boys to stay humble. Why did you feel like you had to deliver that message at that time?
A: When you play a team three times you get to know them a lot better. There’s a lot of pressure. In a way, the competitive spirit gets stronger. Before and after the last game there was a lot of emotion building. I just felt like it was very high and I needed to make sure we didn’t do anything … that we give them the respect that they deserve for being as good a team as they are, and that we not disrespect them in any way.
Q: How would you describe your style as a coach?
A: I may be portrayed as very laid back. But I’m not. When I need to, I’ll fire up the kids. You just have to find the right time and reason to do things.
I also like to include everybody, so I’m not playing with nine stars and substitutes. I go with 13 players who all work hard, who all deserve to play. Maybe that’s my style: Try to get the best out of each person so the team is stronger.
I also look at myself — where are my weaknesses? — and I had two assistant coaches who definitely shored up my weaknesses. … Jason Haleski throws a lot of batting practice, and then there’s Kiha Akau, who coaches third base and really reps the defense a lot. … They’ve done a great job and I don’t know if they’ve gotten the credit they deserve.
Q: How hard is it to travel with a group of boys for a month?
A: I gotta go back to Coach Kiha. When we left for the trip, I said to the boys, "We’re going to travel together, live together, work together, play together." I told them, "Coach Kiha’s now your dad. You’re going to have to report to him. He’s going to make sure you guys are neat and orderly and he’s going to make sure you guys have study halls."
He sits in the room and makes sure everybody does their homework. He’s like a staff sergeant. He made everything easy for me.
Q: What did you tell Cody (Maltezo) before the championship game? (With pitch-limit rules keeping Waipio’s top pitchers out of action, Maltezo, who hadn’t thrown in weeks, had to start against Japan.)
A: After we beat Texas (for the U.S. title), I thought the probable person I would put on the mound would be my fourth pitcher, who had been our closer, Keolu Ramos. But when I started looking at (Japan’s) lineup and stats, I started thinking maybe it’s better if we put in a left-handed pitcher and see what he can do. So I talked to Cody and I said, "The team needs you to start and to give us at least three innings. Can you do it?" And he said, "Yes, Coach. I want it." And he really did. He was just patiently waiting his turn to do whatever he could to help his team.
Q: And he did a great job (limiting Japan to two runs on four hits in five-plus innings).
A: He did an awesome job. That’s probably the one thing that makes me the happiest: To see a kid get his turn and to show what he’s got.
For me, it’s about this kind of individual development more than anything else, because this will be with these kids for the rest of their lives.
Q: Does the team still have more appearances?
A: We have a few, yes.
Q: So are you going to have to keep reminding them to stay humble?
A: Well, they are 11- and 12-year-olds, so they aren’t going to be perfect. I’m 47 and I’m not even close. … But I think that as we went further and further in this journey, it taught them to be humble.
The more we won, the more opportunities that we got … just getting those opportunities makes you a lot more grateful. … I talked to them on that fire truck before the parade and I told them, "You may not know that the public has given us a lot of donations and a lot of help. They’ve really given us a lot, and some of these other teams (in the parade) may not have gotten that kind of support, so be sure to congratulate them because they have done a tremendous job, too."
I told them, "The hard work really starts now, because to whom much is given, much is expected."