Texas ballplayers find playing time, paradise in Hawaii Winter Baseball League
MOST professional baseball players view the winter as a period for rest and recuperation after a rigorous, grinding season that lasts through the spring and summer months.
But for those selected minor leaguers who need some extra work and experience, the Hawaii Winter Baseball League has emerged as a platform on which up-and-coming ballplayers can make their cases for a shot at the next level.
A handful of Texans are making the most of their opportunity in paradise as members of the four-team league based on Oahu that saw its opening pitch on Oct.1. The HWB League features 120 players -- 30 on each team -- from the U.S., Japan and Korea who compete in 40 regular-season games leading up to the championship tomorrow.
Josh Ford, a catcher hailing from Baytown, Texas , has enjoyed his experience in Hawaii as a member of the West Oahu CaneFires.
"It's definitely a different place," said Ford, a product of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. "There's a lot of nice people around here and that's one thing I've taken from it. It's a very friendly community and all the locals have been great to us, and it's been a fun time so far."
The 23-year-old played this past season for the Lancaster JetHawks of the Class A California League. He was efficient at the plate with a .293 average, and also showed signs of power with seven home runs and 52 RBIs in 107 games. Ford is hoping to gain more in-game experience to bolster his chances of climbing the minor league ladder.
"I want to get more at-bats," he said. "This is my first season of pro ball, and I think that the (Diamondbacks) organization wanted me to get more at-bats and play the game. Just getting these extra games under my belt, getting some more experience, I think it'll really help me."
CaneFires teammate John Whittleman is also taking advantage of more time on the field to work on the mental aspect of his at-bats.
"(I'm) working on the approach, having a plan whenever I go up there, not just going up swinging, hacking, and not having a clue what's going on," says Whittleman, a native of Houston. "I'm working on studying the pitchers a lot before I get up there, trying to have an idea of what I'm going to do. That's the main goal while I'm here."
The 19-year-old third baseman was ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the Texas Rangers organization by Baseball America after being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft, and played last season for the Clinton LumberKings of the Class A Midwest League. In 130 games this season, "Whit," as he is affectionately known by teammates, collected 106 hits and pounded nine home runs and 43 RBIs while maintaining a .227 batting average.
Whittleman knows that this opportunity to play with some of his most talented peers will help him improve in the long run.
"Baseball-wise, it's been good playing with some of the top prospects, and as far as the experience, it's awesome," he said. "It's good to be surrounded by a bunch of guys like this early in your career. Being 19, and early in my professional career, I couldn't ask for anything else than to be associated with some of the top guys, and I'm learning a lot right now, so it's pretty fun."
If his first Hawaii Winter Baseball game was a sign of things to come for Koby Clemens, his future is looking quite bright.
The third baseman went 3-for-4 with a double, triple and a game-high three RBIs to help lead the North Shore Honu over the CaneFires, 11-5, in the opening game of the HWB season but he has slipped to a .200 average in 110 at bats over the season. The 19-year-old Houston native is trying to hone his talents with more at-bats and playing time at the hot corner while attempting to forge his own identity.
"It's almost like playing in an all-star game because of all the talent out there," said Clemens, the son of future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens.
"We're all trying to get better so we can (eventually) get to the (Major League) level. I'm always going to have that target on my back with all the things (my father has) achieved. I'm just trying to follow my own path and just be Koby."
Prior to joining the Honu, Clemens played his regular-season ball as a member of the Lexington Legends, the Astros' Class A Minor League affiliate. In 91 games, the third baseman collected 70 hits, five home runs and 39 RBIs while accumulating a .229 batting average.
One of the most unique experiences that American batters in the HWB League will take away is the opportunity to face pitchers from Japan and Korea .
For many of the minor leaguers, it is their first time facing Asian pitchers who employ the long and distracting pitching wind-up while also utilizing multiple release points.
"It's my first time facing them, and the whole wind-up thing is in slow motion and that kind of stuff, it's tough to get used to," Whittleman said. "But in the end, they're fun to talk to and to learn stuff from, and they want to learn from us. It's been a fun time getting to know them and getting used to how they live. Just the language, and trying to learn a few words here and there, they help us out with that."
As a catcher, Ford has the opportunity to work with the pitchers as far as calling pitches and learning how the game is played with subtle differences halfway around the world.
"It's been great, especially catching some of these guys who are Japan big leaguers, it's a trip," Ford says. "They're all good guys; it's been a fun time getting to know them and their culture. The way they call pitches, and just the way they play the game it's supposed to be played, it's refreshing to watch them do that."
Aside from baseball, the players and Hawaii natives will not soon forget the magnitude 6.6 earthquake that rocked the state on Oct. 15. For many of the ballplayers, especially those from Texas , the earthquake was a unique experience.
"The earthquake was a little freaky, it was my first time being in one," Whittleman says. "I had never felt anything like that. We were 30 floors up (in our Waikiki condominium), so it was crazy."