MLB’s next hit the field
Hawaii Winter Baseball shows off new crop of stars
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Eight players who spent a couple of months last year honing their skills in Hawaii Winter Baseball made the jump to the major leagues this summer. The next group of prospects hoping to use the league as a springboard to the bigs opens the HWB's seventh season today at Hans L'Orange Field.
Hawaii Winter Baseball
Where: Hans L'Orange Field
Time: Noon and 6 p.m.
The season begins at noon with Mayor Mufi Hannemann throwing out the first pitch prior to the matchup between the North Shore Honu and West Oahu CaneFires. The Honolulu Sharks face the Waikiki BeachBoys at 6 p.m. The opening weekend continues tomorrow with two more games.
The league will be based at Hans L'Orange this season with renovations to the playing surface at Les Murakami Stadium precluding use of the facility. HWB will also hold games at Iron Maehara Stadium on Maui and Francis Wong Stadium in Hilo.
HWB, in its second season since its revival, again features a mix of prospects from the U.S. and Japan. Pitching dominated the league last season (four HWB hurlers made it to the majors this year) as the four teams combined to hit .238 over the course of the season.
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When his schedule allows him a few minutes to check out the day's baseball highlights, Duane Kurisu can't help but feel kind of like a proud parent when a former Hawaii Winter Leaguer pops onto the screen.
Road to the Majors
2006 HWB players who reached the major leagues this season
» Joba Chamberlain, pitcher, Yankees
» Jeff Clement, catcher, Mariners
» Ian Kennedy, pitcher, Yankees
» Nyjer Morgan, outfielder, Pirates
» Clint Sammons, catcher, Braves
» Nate Schierholtz, outfielder, Giants
» Joe Thatcher, pitcher, Padres
» Rick VandenHurk, pitcher, Marlins
As chairman and CEO of the league, Kurisu delights in tracking the progress of players who passed through HWB on their way to the majors -- from those who eventually grew into all-stars to some who were here just 12 months ago.
"Even going back to the days when Ichiro (Suzuki) and Todd Helton played, you almost feel like they're your children and they've grown up," Kurisu said. "Guys like Joba (Chamberlain) and Ian (Kennedy) and Nyjer (Morgan) and (Nate) Schierholtz, boy, they grow up real fast. The good thing is they're all really good kids."
The next crop of major league hopefuls arrived here this week and open the league's seventh season -- its second since its revival -- today at Hans L'Orange Field.
The league's schedule, which runs through November, begins at noon with the North Shore Honu facing the West Oahu CaneFires. The Honolulu Sharks meet the Waikiki BeachBoys at 6 p.m. The Sharks-BeachBoys game will be televised live on KFVE.
Chamberlain and Kennedy pitched for the CaneFires last year and contributed to the New York Yankees' run to the postseason this year. Outfielders Morgan and Schierholtz were called up by the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, respectively, this season as eight 2006 HWB players made the jump to the bigs.
While the number of alumni who make it to the show provides Kurisu and his staff with a sense of satisfaction, so is the continued confidence of the major league organizations in the U.S. and Japan that entrust some of their prospects to HWB.
This year's group of players, most of whom spent the season with their organization's Class A teams, includes Sharks catcher Matt Wieters, who is considered the Baltimore Orioles' top prospect after being selected with the fifth overall pick in June's First-Year Player Draft.
Castle graduate Reid Santos, a member of the Cleveland Indians organization, is slated to pitch for the CaneFires as the lone Hawaii product to be assigned to the league this year.
The league again features prospects from major league clubs from the U.S. and Japan, and Kurisu said the mix aids in the development of the players, particularly at the plate.
"It's a pitcher's league, so the hitters have a really good chance to advance their skills," Kurisu said. "The Japanese pitchers add a whole different dimension. Coaches have said facing the Japanese pitching and their style, and the movement of their pitches is going to help their players immensely."
As the league continues to give prospects an opportunity to develop in the offseason, there are a couple of new wrinkles this season.
With Les Murakami Stadium scheduled to have its playing surface replaced this fall, all of the league's Oahu games will be played at Hans L'Orange. Most game days will feature matchups at noon and 6:30 p.m.
The league will also return to Maui and the Big Island with six games each at Iron Maehara Stadium in Wailuku and Hilo's Francis Wong Stadium.
Among the improvements at Hans L'Orange is the installation of a video screen for replays and messages.
"It's already a really neat ballpark to be at, but we wanted to raise the level for everybody," Kurisu said.