When Kolten Wong passed up a professional contract with the Minnesota Twins in 2008, he called it a gamble.
Yesterday, that gamble turned up a pair of deuces, as in No. 22, overall.
Wong became the first Hawaii Rainbows’ position player selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft when the St. Louis Cardinals pegged him as their potential future second baseman.
The Hilo native was the ninth position player off the board when MLB commissioner Bud Selig read his name aloud, drawing a loud cheer from family and friends gathered in Salt Lake watching on the MLB Network.
The third-team All-American by Louisville Slugger was invited to attend the draft in Secaucus, N.J., but decided to watch at his uncle’s house alongside his mom when his name was called.
"To celebrate this with my family is something I wanted to do and to get that chance was awesome," said Wong, who joins pitchers Derek Tatsuno (1982), Mike Campbell (1985) and Mark Johnson (1996) as UH’s only first-round selections.
Tatsuno was a first-rounder in the winter phase of the draft before the format changed in 1987.
Wong was offered a signing bonus of $75,000 plus four years of schooling as a high-school draftee out of Kamehameha-Hawaii on the Big Island.
He turned it down to attend Hawaii, where he was a three-time All-Western Athletic Conference selection and WAC freshman of the year.
He’s eighth all-time in hits (235), second in home runs (25), ninth in doubles (47), seventh in total bases (385) and fourth in batting average (.358) in just three seasons.
He led the team to a WAC tournament title in 2010 and a regular-season crown this season, both firsts for the program since 1992.
Kolten Wong is one of four Rainbows ever drafted in the first round. He’s also the only position player:
*–Drafted in the winter phase
"He made the right decision, not only for him but for UH and now the St. Louis Cardinals," said father Kaha Wong, who was a teammate with current Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire at Southern Cal. "It’s very emotional and I’m very, very proud of Kolten."
Wong will command a signing bonus likely in the seven-figure range during negotiations over the next couple of weeks.
Once signed, Wong will officially forgo his senior year and head for summer ball in the Cardinals’ minor-league system.
There, he could reunite with his double-play partner in 2010, Greg Garcia, who the Cardinals drafted in the seventh round last year.
Garcia recently was promoted to Palm Beach in the Class A Advanced Florida State League.
Wong’s draft status skyrocketed with his performance in the Cape Cod League last summer, where he earned Most Valuable Player honors.
He finished third with a .341 average and was the only player to finish in the top 10 in both home runs and stolen bases.
"That was an opportunity I could not pass (up)," Wong said in an interview with the MLB Network. "I did (Team) USA my freshman year and to do Cape my following year is something that not many people can do and on top of that to get MVP honors, I just feel blessed, especially for a kid from a little town of Hilo."
Hall of Fame commentator Peter Gammons, who was part of MLB’s broadcast team for the draft, raised eyebrows last summer when he compared Wong to former Cleveland Indians and New York Mets second baseman Carlos Baerga.
He hasn’t backed off that comparison since.
"I don’t lightly throw the name Carlos Baerga around," Gammons said during the broadcast. "He understands how to play the game. He’s an absolute baseball rat."
Wong is the first of many players with local ties expected to be drafted over the next two days.
Teammate Lenny Linsky is expected to be the next Rainbow drafted early today when Round 2 starts at 6 a.m.
TOP LOCAL DRAFTEES
The highest draft picks who graduated from local high schools since the draft format changed in 1987: