WELCOME HOME, CHAMPS
Big Isle heralds return of the kings
A queen of baseball is also cheered with the World Series winners
HILO » About 150 friends, family and political fans jammed the bottom of the stairway at Hilo Airport yesterday, ready to shower young world champions with cheers.
Many hugged and put candy leis on members of the team that won the World Series of the Cal Ripken 12 and Under in their age division.
The players took it all in stride.
"We just concentrated on playing," said pitcher Ekolu Martins when asked what it was like to have 20 teammates and adults crammed into one or two hotel rooms for days on end.
Some looked a little unsure of what to do when Mayor Harry Kim congratulated them.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Cal Ripken 12 and Under World Series tournament champs passed through Honolulu Airport yesterday en route to their Hilo home, and were greeted by Hawaiian Airlines staffers and others. Group shots were taken. CLICK FOR LARGE
"This is chicken skin," said County Council Chairman Stacy Higa.
"I got all choked up seeing them on the stairs," said fellow Councilman Fred Holschuh.
But when time came for a group photo, the teammates grinned ear to ear.
The team's victory was already widely reported. It was the second consecutive world championship for a Hawaii team, with a prior win by an Oahu team. It was the third Ripken world championship by a Hawaii team in four years.
Team manager Kaha Wong made it clear that there was nothing easy about the victory.
"It's a lot of hard work," he said. Having weather that allows year-round practice helps, he said.
Wong assembled his team in many cases with kids not eligible for other leagues, he said.
"I love low-income kids," he said. "I've got a lot of single-parent kids. We're trying to keep them busy so they don't get into trouble."
"If a kid doesn't have a bat, we find them a bat. If he doesn't have shoes, we buy them shoes."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Hilo team that captured the Cal Ripken World Series tournament title received an enthusiastic homecoming at Honolulu Airport yesterday. Kawika Pruett, 12, selected the tournament's MVP and holding the trophy presented to him by Cal Ripken Jr., posed with his proud mother, Renee Pruett. CLICK FOR LARGE
If a child can't afford the $40 fee to join the team, someone pays it for him, but then he has to do extra work until he has worked off the value of the assistance.
The kids have to maintain school grades of at least a C average. Two of the kids dropped below that mark this year and Wong suspended them from the team. They did extra-credit schoolwork, brought their grades back up, and were part of the team that won on Sunday in Aberdeen, Md.
It's an equal opportunity team. Kiani Wong, the manager's daughter, plays on the team.
"She's a girl before she gets on the baseball field," said her grandmother Susan Malua-DeVera. Then "she's one of the guys. She gets yelled at exactly the same."
The victory brought major financial sacrifices to parents. Manager Wong estimated each family ran up debt of $10,000 to $20,000 with travel expenses. Not knowing if their team would advance through state competition to regionals in California and then to Aberdeen, there was no time to do fundraising.
One mother got fired from her job at a bank for refusing to leave her son's team when it was on a winning streak.
Gifts welcome for team debts
People wishing to donate to the Hilo team and to debt-ridden parents can write checks to "Big Island Cal Ripken" and send them to 114 Kehaulani St., Hilo, HI 96720.