Hawaii Winter Baseball makes return to Oahu
Major League Baseball paying for player salaries helped revive the league
One Hawaii Winter Baseball official called it a "rain delay."
And after nine years of waiting for conditions to clear, the professional baseball league is set to return to Hawaii this fall.
On hiatus since 1997, HWB officially heralded its return at a press conference yesterday, with the season's first pitch scheduled for Oct. 1 at Hans L'Orange Field.
The league's sixth season will feature four teams -- all based on Oahu -- with U.S. minor-league prospects mixed with pros from Japan and Korea.
"I'm ecstatic," said HWB chairman and CEO Duane Kurisu. "Professional baseball is such a tough business, so I can't look at it as a business, it's just pure enjoyment. Everything's coming from the heart."
The four teams -- the Honolulu Sharks, West Oahu CaneFires, Waikiki Beach Boys and North Shore Honu -- will each play 40 games during the regular season, with the top two meeting for the championship on Nov. 22.
The Sharks and Beach Boys (which make up the HWB East division) will be based at Les Murakami Stadium. The CaneFires and Honu (HWB West) will play their home games at Hans L'Orange in Waipahu.
The league first opened in 1993 and ran five years before finances prompted its shutdown in 1997. Kurisu, a principal partner with the San Francisco Giants and part owner of the Star-Bulletin, kept the league office open and said he was asked by the professional leagues to resurrect HWB, pointing to several factors in triggering its return.
» Major League Baseball has agreed to pay 100 percent of the salaries for coaches and players. Previously, MLB paid 10 percent of the salaries.
» HWB was able to secure sponsors locally and in Japan to help cover expenses.
» The league's television contract through BluePrint Media will provide another revenue stream, with games televised live in Asia and on a delayed basis in Hawaii. Games will air on KFVE at 10:30 p.m. each Wednesday starting Oct. 11 and running through the championship game on Nov. 22.
"The fourth thing is Asian baseball has really come alive," Kurisu said. "With the World Baseball Classic, the Koreans and Japanese have shown that they're pretty close to the level of everybody else."
Kurisu said he learned "enough for three lifetimes" during the league's first run and was reminded of the league's responsibility early in its existence as teams sent players with hefty contracts to Hawaii to develop.
"We were still learning how to run professional baseball," Kurisu said of the league's early years. "So we have a lot of experience now in what things to look at, what things to anticipate."
Kurisu said MLB required the league to limit its operations to Oahu for two years to facilitate scouting, but could look at returning to the neighbor islands in future years.
The Hilo Stars, Maui Stingrays and Kauai Emeralds were part of the league's original lineup.
"We have a promise with Major League Baseball that after two years we will look at resurrecting teams on Maui and in Hilo," Kurisu said. "In our hearts, we would like to expand to six teams."
Kurisu said 28-player rosters will be finalized in September. MLB teams will send Single-A and Double-A prospects to the league. They will be joined by players under contract with Japan Professional Baseball and Korea Baseball Organization.
Major league teams submit a list of players they want to send to HWB to the Commissioner's Office. The players are then allocated to the four squads. Clyde Nekoba, HWB's Vice President and Director of Operations, said each team may also include two players with Hawaii ties.
HWB's alumni list includes current major leaguers Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Derrek Lee, Adam Kennedy, Tadahito Iguchi and Todd Helton. Catchers A.J. Pierzynski and Michael Barrett both made stops in Hawaii on their way to the bigs.
"I'm speaking as a fan and I'm excited to come to the park in fall and be able to watch some future stars playing baseball here in Hawaii. As a fan, it's a great opportunity for us," said Hawaii baseball coach Mike Trapasso, who attended yesterday's press conference.
"I wasn't here that last time it was here, but you just look at the names that came through here and if you've got that kind of talent coming through again it's just going to be great."