OAKLAND, Calif. >>To Adam Rosales, he’s “Hawaiian Eli.”
The Oakland infielder doesn’t even know the teen’s last name and hardly remembers the promising shortstop’s high school on the Big Island. It is a bit of a tongue-twister, after all.
Yet Eli Lai, the 17-year-old’s coach and his father will never forget how the kind-hearted major leaguer helped provide a lift to a young man who desperately needed one this winter. Lai learned to focus on the goal of taking his baseball career to the next level and the work it demands.
Rosales called Kealakehe High coach Josh Hansen and told him he would be staying outside Kona for a month during the offseason, inquiring about using the school’s facilities to lift weights, hit and take groundballs. Hansen gave him a key to the weight room and connected him to Eli, who quickly became a reliable workout partner. They met at 7 a.m. each day for batting practice and infield drills.
“He has ambitions to play college ball and he wants to be in the major leagues,” Rosales recalled. “I tried to tell him it takes a lot of work and sacrifice to do that. Really good kid, and the dedication was there.”
They tried for 100 straight successful short-hops, though never quite got there.
“It was definitely a blessing to have him come out, and for Eli to have an opportunity,” said Hansen, beginning his fifth season as head coach following four years as an assistant at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. “Such a good guy, and what a cool thing for Eli to experience.”
Lai transferred last year from Oahu, where he lived with his mother, to the Big Island to be with his father for his senior year. He sought a fresh start. He welcomed a positive influence, and then Rosales showed up for some down time before the grind of another baseball season and life as a backup — after landing his first seven-figure base salary at $1.25 million to rejoin the Athletics.
A 5-foot-9 right-handed hitter, Lai has raised his grade point average from a 1.6 to a 3.6, is planning for college and, he hopes, a long baseball career.
He plans to visit Northern California to see Rosales play this season and then attend College of the Siskiyous at the base of Mount Shasta to become a firefighter, following his father’s path. Calvin Lai played baseball at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho.
“My senior year, I finally got the chance to move up here. This school just really seems to care about me,” Lai said. “I wasn’t really interested in school. It’s all really changed. I’ve got a better head on my shoulders.”
Hanging around Rosales for the better part of a month sure helped the cause.
The 33-year-old Rosales is preparing for yet another stint with the A’s after three-plus seasons away. He’s the journeyman who during an 11-day span late in the 2013 season was claimed off waivers by Texas from Oakland, went back to the A’s off waivers from the Rangers and then returned to Texas once again on waivers only to watch his former team win the AL West without him.
At FanFest recently, longtime equipment manager Steve Vucinich stormed through the room to give the popular “Rosie” a hug. Rosales’ father, Will, attended with him and also hit him some offseason grounders.
“It’s very surreal, but it’s very comfortable as well,” Rosales said of his return. “It’s very welcoming to be back home.”
When Hansen first played back a phone message, Rosales identified himself as a player with San Diego — his previous team. Flabbergasted by his luck, the high school coach went straight for a colleague who loves the Pads.
“I came into my office one day here at the school and I listened to the message and it said, ‘Hey, my name is Adam Rosales and I play for the San Diego Padres,’” Hansen said. “He said he was going to be coming out to the island and he was looking for a field to play on, facilities to use while he was out here for a month. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is amazing.’”
Rosales even swung by the school to check it out with his wife and kids once arriving in Kona to stay at his uncle’s condo.
Hansen let his team know Rosales was looking for practice partners, and Lai is the one who lasted.
“After a while, I started coming down and it was just me and him and we got more 1-on-1 work in and that’s when the results really started showing,” said Lai, the team’s projected starting shortstop and No. 1 pitcher.
He is still finding his stroke at the plate.
“It was pretty impressive, cool for the kids to spend time with him. Eli was pretty dumbfounded,” Hansen said. “That’s kind of what his big comments have been since Adam left was he really helped him with his hitting.”
Oh, and Rosales never returned that key.
He might wind up needing it again. A’s manager Bob Melvin joked about joining them next time.
“He’s as selfless a guy on a team as you’re ever going to find,” Melvin said. “He never complains about playing time. He never complains about coming in a game when you’re down 10-to-nothing in the sixth inning. He understands his role. He’s there for his teammates. … He’s a consummate teammate. You don’t find too many guys like that.”