HAWAII WINTER BASEBALL
League goes local
It didn't take long for Kala Ka'aihue to get a taste of the multicultural nature of Hawaii Winter Baseball.
The Iolani graduate was kicking back in the third-base dugout at Les Murakami Stadium moments before the Honolulu Sharks' first practice when shortstop Masaya Ozaki stopped by to say hello.
Anticipating that his name might trip up Ozaki, part of the Sharks' contingent of players from Japan, Ka'aihue introduced himself simply as "K.K.", then showed his new teammate a bat with his name inscribed on the barrel, which Ozaki made a game attempt at sounding out.
Both Ka'aihue and Sharks teammate Rodney "Braddah" Choy Foo figure to spend much of the next two months helping the rest of the squad get used to various nuances of island life as well.
As most of the players who arrived in town this week from the mainland or Japan get settled in, Ka'aihue and Choy Foo, a Kailua High graduate, are back home to play in HWB's comeback season after a nine-year absence.
The Sharks open the 40-game campaign against the Waikiki Beach Boys, managed by Kalani grad and former major leaguer Lenn Sakata, today at 3 p.m. at Murakami Stadium. The North Shore Honu and West Oahu CaneFires meet at Hans L'Orange Field in Waipahu at the same time.
"I never thought in a million years, but it's awesome," Choy Foo said of getting a chance to play in Hawaii again. "It's like a dream that my family can watch me play -- they haven't seen me play minor league ball."
Ka'aihue's brother, Kila, was assigned to the CaneFires, but may not play this fall due to a knee injury that hampered him throughout the regular season.
"It might just be me, unfortunately," Kala said. "But he'll be here watching."
"He would love to be playing. Just be playing at home, playing against his brother -- that had never happened before," said their father, Kala Ka'aihue Sr. "I'm sure he would have loved to be out there, but I think the future is what we're looking at."
The younger Kala Ka'aihue, a member of the Atlanta Braves system, and Choy Foo, a Cleveland Indians prospect, both ended their seasons in the Single-A Carolina League.
Ka'aihue, a first baseman, enjoyed a productive season playing for the Rome Braves (Low-A) and Myrtle Beach Pelicans (High-A). He hit .329 with 52 RBIs and 15 homers with Rome before being promoted to Myrtle Beach, where his average dipped to .223. But he still socked 13 homers and drove in 31 runs.
He homered in three straight games in August on his way to earning Carolina League Player of the Week honors.
"I gained a lot of experience in one year and I can't wait for next year and the following year," he said. "The more at-bats I get, the more I play the game, the better I'll get. It's exciting to take on new challenges."
Ka'aihue is among several HWB players who followed their fathers into professional baseball. And Kala Sr. has enjoyed tracking his development since his graduation from Iolani in 2003.
"He's much stronger now," the elder Ka'aihue said. "He's learned a lot from (coaches) like Lenn Sakata and the last year with the Braves. He's got more confidence and he's learning and it's kind of neat watching him progress the way he has."
Choy Foo, who grew up in Waimanalo and earned Star-Bulletin All-State honors at Kailua in 2000, just completed his sixth season in the Cleveland Indians organization playing for the Kinston Indians. He hit .293 with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs while playing mostly third and first base.
The 24-year-old is looking to build on his solid season in the winter league while developing his game alongside players from other organizations and the Japan leagues.
"I'm just going to have fun and keep playing like it's a regular-season game," said Choy Foo, who still prefers going by Braddah. "I'm going to be learning a lot of stuff from the coaches and get to know the other players. They've all got talent.
"I heard (the Japanese pitchers) throw a lot of offspeed stuff, so it'll be good to see that."
Along with welcoming the brothers back to Kailua, the Ka'aihue family is also hosting Sharks second baseman Eric Campbell, one of Kala's teammates in Rome.
"We're excited about Eric becoming part of our family as well," said Rose Ka'aihue, Kala and Kila's mother.
Ka'aihue and Choy Foo are looking forward to sharing the fields at Murakami Stadium and Hans L'Orange, both parks they grew familiar with as youngsters, with highly regarded prospects aiming for a future in the majors.
"These guys are all legit players," Ka'aihue said. "If the team sends them here to play, to pay them in the offseason, you have to be good."