For more than 70 years, the Kawananakoa Playground has nurtured a community’s love of athletics, sharing its royal name with a middle school, auditorium and a princess.
And, for nearly 60 of those years, the sun coming up over Punchbowl has been greeted by Honolulu Meija Makule Softball League players. The field used by the 60-and-over league is much like its players: aging but with plenty of life, hints of past glory renewed every Sunday — except Mother’s Day — from late January through September.
What’s not to love about a league where hitting the trees in the distant outfield is a ground-rule double? And if the ball keeps rolling toward the rock walls older than you … well, you keep running, too.
The "boys of endless summer" say playing softball keeps them young. Thanks to the generosity of a construction company, no red tape from city hall, and a chance Sunday morning run by someone living just up the road, their field no longer is showing its age.
The runner was Keith Amemiya, the former executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association, who spotted the mother of his son’s youth league coach keeping score under a temporary tent. He stopped to say hello to Judy Kitagawa, whose husband Kit was playing.
"I was impressed by the level of play but, at the same time horrified by the condition of the field," said Amemiya, now the executive administrator and secretary for the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. "These are men who have lived great lives, many who have given back to the community as coaches and teachers, and who served our country in the military.
"I felt the least we could do was to give them a playable softball field."
Amemiya called RMY Construction, owned by Russell Yamamoto, a company known for refurbishing playing fields at little or no cost. The most recent project was the athletic field at UH Lab School.
Kawananakoa was uneven, to say the least, with up to 8 inches of difference between spots. The field was regraded, creating a skin infield, with high-grade cinders mixed in with the existing dirt. The donation of time, labor and cinder has been estimated at $10,000.
"Any kind of opportunity that we can do to help the community we’re happy to do," said Yamamoto’s son Ryan, RMY’s project manager. "It was a really good thing to do. The makule are tough but they are getting older. We didn’t want them to get hurt. It was about a safe playing field.
"Some of the players came down while we were there to talk story. We’re glad they’re happy."
RMY left after three days of intensive work, leaving behind a flat playing surface and memories of bad-hop singles helped by a clump of weeds or a puka where cinder should have been. The league has an annual cleanup day but rakes, weed-whackers and shovels from home cannot be compared to the heavy machinery RMY used to create the smooth infield.
"We tried to fix it best we could," said 81-year-old George Okihiro, in his third decade of playing in the league. "Now no one has an excuse for making bad plays."
"The contractors did a magnificent job," said former Parks and Recreation Director Bill Balfour, now an assistant to director-designated Gary Cabato. "When Keith talked to Gary, we said, ‘Yes, go ahead.’ Now we’re saying ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ "
The field will be rededicated Sunday at 10:45 a.m. Included will be a moment of silence for longtime umpire Hide Yamashita, who died Feb. 3 at age 93.
"My friends are all going," said Wally Kawachi, a longtime player for Mits and one of the elder statemen of the league at 89.
The generosity won’t end with the renovation. Punahou School baseball coach Eric Kadooka donated metal rakes, dirt drags and bases to the league and his Buffanblu team plans to help maintain the field periodically as a community service project.
"Some people believe in coincidences," league member Ray Sakai said. "I think everything happens for a reason. Other people would have come by, noticed the field wasn’t in good shape and did nothing. We had someone who happened by and did something."