CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> A quick glance at Kean Wong’s pregame routine does not accurately portray what’s at stake for the 23-year-old ballplayer.
The Waiakea alum is in the tail end of his sixth minor league season since getting drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s steadily climbed the organizational ladder, moving up a level each year before spending the past two seasons in Triple-A with the Durham Bulls.
Two hours before first pitch at the Charlotte Knights’ BB&T Ballpark last Wednesday, after getting his cuts in during batting practice, Wong joined the rest of the Bulls in the outfield, cracking jokes and exchanging laughs with his teammates. He understands that a call-up to the majors is getting closer by the day, but that hasn’t stopped him from moving around loosely.
“Honestly, it’s a grind, but at the same time, it’s fun,” Wong says. “You get to meet new people, meet new friends and just travel to different places and play baseball, which I love.”
Wong went on to go 1-for-5 on Wednesday, but he was right in the middle of the celebration in the visiting clubhouse after the Bulls won 9-4 to clinch their second straight International League South Division title.
But a postseason berth means a prolonged schedule for the Bulls, which could delay Wong’s promotion. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship in 2017 thanks to Wong’s four RBIs in a 5-3 championship game win over the Memphis Redbirds on Sept. 19.
Balancing another postseason run with a potential call-up to the show hasn’t fazed Wong, who vows to give his all to whichever team the organization places him on. That approach has earned the respect of Bulls manager Jared Sandberg, who played for Tampa Bay back when the team was known as the Devil Rays, from 2001 to 2003.
“He’s been great. To see a young player get to Triple-A, he hit his way here. He’s definitely done a great job of putting himself on the map as far as the Triple-A is concerned,” Sandberg said before listing Wong’s accolades off the top of his head, which in 2018 alone include Triple-A All-Star Game MVP, midseason All-Star and postseason All-Star honors.
Sandberg lists Wong’s bat as his biggest asset, although he also cited his defensive versatility. Wong spent parts of the season in center and left field, as well as at third base. Like older brother Kolten, of the St. Louis Cardinals, he spends most of his time on the field at second base. When Kean won Star-Advertiser position player of the year honors in 2012 as a junior, he was primarily a catcher.
Kean Wong’s .151 batting average in August has dipped his season average to .282. Still, Sandberg has seen enough from him the past two years to conclude that he has what it takes to stick around at the major league level.
“It’s all in the bat right now. If he continues to hit, he’ll be up there, because that’s gonna be the one thing that’s either gonna make or break him,” Sandberg said. “He’s definitely hit very, very well, although August has been tough on him, but I think he’s learned a lot from that.
“From a big league, major league standpoint, he’ll probably be an everyday player as long as he continues to hit.”
Wong and Sandberg can relate when it comes to playing for the same pro organization, but that relatability isn’t nearly as profound as the family dynamic.
Jared Sandberg is the nephew of Ryne Sandberg, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee who enjoyed a 16-year career with the Phillies and Cubs.
“I knew having ‘Sandberg’ on the back of my jersey, there was a lot of pressure with that,” Jared Sandberg said, “so I knew that coming into professional baseball, I had to make a name for myself. That was my whole goal when I started out professionally.
“For (Kean Wong), it’s a great sounding board. He’s able to bounce some things off his brother, learn from his brother’s career as far as grinding up through the minor leagues and now obviously being an established big leaguer.”
The Wong brothers are busy during the season, but Kean says he and Kolten talk “maybe once or twice a week.”
Kean already took his own path to the professional ranks, skipping the Hawaii baseball program that Kolten played for. Kean Wong was eager to get his career started and the slot value for his pick was $393,500. He signed for a bonus that would be hard for any teenage athlete to turn down.
“At the end of the day, that was my dream school,” Kean Wong said. “I told my dad ‘If I don’t get drafted right here, I’m gonna play for Hawaii.’ I did, and I decided to take my talents to pro ball.”
It was a decision the younger Wong says he has no regrets about, and one that is on the verge of paying off in a big way.
“It’s a learning experience. You learn new things every day,” he said. “When it happens, it’s gonna be a dream come true, but until then, I’ll keep on working and keep on pushing to get to that goal. It’s been a grind, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”