Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I promised a follow-up post on the experience of Hawaii Winter Baseball, and here it is...
Hawaii Winter Baseball consists of four teams comprised of players of various Major League affiliations as well as players with Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan) affiliations. This year's schedule started on October 1st and ended on November 21st, with the championship game being on November 22nd. Yes, this does mean that the Hawaii Winter Baseball season ends about a month before winter starts. This of course leads to the following question: is winter in Hawaii really winter at all? The league uses two home stadiums, Hans L'Orange Field in Waipahu on the western side of the island of Oahu, and Les Murakami Stadium on the eastern side. Hans L'Orange is the home field for Hawaii Pacific University, but specifically for the winter league, the field is home to the North Shore Honu and the West Oahu CaneFires. Les Murakami Stadium is home to the University of Hawaii baseball team, but home to the Honolulu Sharks and the Waikiki BeachBoys for the winter league.
The bad thing is that though I was aware the league existed, I was not aware it was actually in full swing until a week or so ago. Thus, I immediately looked at the league schedule and figured out which games to attend.
The team about which Mariner fans everywhere would care most were the Waikiki BeachBoys. Dana Williams, slated to coach for single-A Wisconsin next year, coached third base for Waikiki. The five players with Mariner affiliations were pitchers David Asher and Joe Woerman, first baseman Reed Eastley, outfielder Sebastien Boucher, and of course, the man for whom Kenji Johjima is a seatwarmer, Mariner catcher of the future Jeff Clement.
I went to the game on November 20th (Monday) with the objective of taking as many pictures as possible and getting the five Mariner farmhands onto the memory card. I also thought of an outside chance at an autograph.
After driving in a circle, I finally got to the parking booth on the lower campus of the University of Hawaii. Event parking cost $3, which wasn't too bad. I found a spot, then walked toward the biggest structure, which indeed turned out to be Les Murakami Stadium, right across the street from Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium. I got there very early, almost as early as I used to show up to Safeco Field. I remember the mission then was to get to the Center Field Gate since it opened three hours early (pre-California power crunch), then go inside to watch the tail end of Mariner batting practice, hoping to get home-run balls in the stands. The other gates opened two hours prior to game time, but by then you're stuck with the road team and don't get to see Seattle taking hacks.
Anyway, with no walk-ups being let into the stadium and the ticket window not opening until 6p local time, I took a walk around the perimeter of the stadium, counterclockwise. By the flagpoles beyond the outer fence in rightcenter (field equipment is stored between the inner and outer fences), I found a baseball that appeared to have some wear on it, and looking at the seams, it looked to be a tiny bit misshapen. Anyway, I walked away with it. That was my future autograph material.
The ticket window opened at 6p, as expected. The best seats in the house cost $6, all in the lower deck. It didn't matter if it was behind the dugout or behind the plate, all those seats were $6. My ticket was for the back (eighth) row in the lower deck behind the plate, but I decided I'd reassess my seating position as gametime drew closer. The event staff managing the game were all campus college students wearing requisite green shirts proclaiming themselves as such. The public address announcer was also obviously someone that was late teens/early 20s in age, definitely. Not so much a public address-type voice as a guy-speaking-into-the-PA-microphone voice.
I started taking pictures of stuff and found that since I'm not exactly an aficionado with taking pictures with substandard light, I was getting all sorts of blurs and trippy pictures of things or players in motion. That doesn't mean I came away emptyhanded (see below). The BeachBoys took the first-base dugout as the "road" team on the field. Players were playing long toss, stretching, chatting, and/or playing pepper. Maybe of some note, there was some evidence of Mariner guys sticking together as Clement played long toss with Woerman, who at that point I thought would be the starting pitcher. As these things were taking place, a handful or so people were on both ends of the Waikiki dugout. They were seeking autographs and had great access to the players. I was busy getting settled in, so I didn't go over there right away to try to get the ball signed.
I noticed some guys in front of me that seemed a bit important, having snazzy cellphones, a scorecard with Colorado Rockies letterhead, and a radar gun. I think it might be safe to assume they were scouts. If so, they were scouting their own guy(s). Most notably, they had the radar gun there to clock righty Ching-Lung Lo. I didn't end up going over to ask how fast he was throwing.
The starting lineup for the BeachBoys that night had Boucher starting in rightfield and Eastley starting at first base. Ultimately, the game itself was a 10-3 win for Waikiki. Boucher and Eastley were the only Mariner farmhands that played, virtually guaranteeing I would attend the next night's game. Boucher doubled, singled, walked twice, and struck out twice. Eastley went 3-for-5 with four RBIs, including a seeing-eye three-run double into the rightfield corner. All of Eastley's RBIs came with two out.
The problem with the game was that it was incredibly long, and I had to work the next morning (my shift starts at 6:30a). Keep in mind I've sat through hundreds of Mariner games that were over three hours long. If it was a Major League game with television commercials and promotional stuff between innings, I could understand, but at this level -- a wood-bat league with all minor-league players -- I didn't figure the game would last three hours and 13 minutes. There wasn't much in terms of promotional stuff beyond a t-shirt toss and a "pick which of the three bags has the hidden prize" contest. In the BeachBoys' marathon top of the eighth inning, Shun Tono loaded the bases with nobody out, but it didn't draw a mound visit from manager Gary Kendall (Pirates' system). After getting a strikeout, Tono walked Eric Young, Jr. to force in a run and get the hook. Anyway, the game ended, and autograph hounds went straight to where they were before the game, and they were getting quite a few signings. Also, some players were coming straight up the steps and onto the main concourse, some of them signing stuff and some of them going straight to the concession stands to get food. Still other players were easily accessible on the lower concourse just inside the turnstiles coming out of the locker room. The player access is incredible in this league.
Since I don't know where else to fit this, have you ever attended a baseball game where the sound person tried to play sounds or music between every single pitch? Have you ever heard Nelly's "Pimp Juice" used as a stepping-to-the-plate song? I can't say I did until last Monday. Of course, I knew what I was dealing with since the entire field staff was a gaggle of college students. By the way, I hope to never hear "Pimp Juice" at a sporting event ever again. Actually, I hope never to hear it for the rest of my life.
A day at work passed, and I caught a quick nap before catching something to eat and heading off to the game (November 21st). I got a bit of a late start, and bad traffic (including the presidential motorcade going in the other direction on the H-1 freeway) compounded my lateness. I got my parking spot and walked to the ticket booth, got a ticket closer to the Waikiki dugout, and walked in with my baseball and camera.
I got there a bit later, so I went straight to the seats above the end of the dugout to see what the autograph scene looked like. By this point, I'd decided autograph priority number one was Jeff Clement, but I saw he was warming up the starting pitcher (fellow Mariner farmhand David Asher) in the bullpen, so I shelved those plans until after the game. I was definitely assured of a quicker game as sheets posted around the ticket window warned that the day's game would run for seven innings. Unfortunately, right after the national anthem was played, the infamous Manoa Mist started falling from the sky, prompting anyone in uncovered seats to move back about six rows into covered seats. I waited it out for a few minutes until it tapered off a bit. Thanks to the guy at the gate for handing me a complimentary copy of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, since I used it to make sure I sat on a dry seat.
How'd the game end up? Well, Waikiki got rocked. The good news was that Asher had struck out seven after 2 2/3 innings of work. The bad news was that he gave up six runs (five earned) as well, throwing 70 pitches in the process and getting the hook. Eastley didn't appear in this game, but Asher and Clement started (as noted) and Joe Woerman finished off the game with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. The homer was Boucher's only hit to go with a walk, and Clement had a single into shallow right (pictured below).
After the game, I surveyed the near-dugout scene and decided to head elsewhere. Some players headed to the concourse and the concession stands, but I didn't go after them. I went to the lower concourse. A few players came out with their jerseys still on, so if all you knew was the number of the player and the name, you could get your desired autograph. I saw a player come out with a shirt on (not a jersey) and a big bag. He attracted a couple of autograph hounds and I put one and one together and realized the bag was more than likely full of catcher's gear. I saw what the other two guys were handing him to sign, and it turns out this guy was Jeff Clement. As he signed the baseball I'd found the day before, the following conversation ensued...
me: "Give 'em hell next spring, bud."
Before I launch into the pictures, I'll just say Yoshiyuki Kamei (Yomiuri Giants) has got some wheels. I watched him at the plate and kinda panned him because the swing is a bit Ichiro ripoffish, but he drilled a ball into the gap and it was one of those things where it's usually a double, but he legged a triple out of it.
At long last, the pictures. Please credit me and link back in the unlikely event that you use these.
Reed Eastley, playing first base
Sebastien Boucher in the on-deck circle
David Asher waiting to get the ball back from Clement
Joe Woerman on the mound
Jeff Clement (29) stepping to the plate
Clement singling into shallow rightfield
For the second time on this site, the Clement ball
The league has a pretty good thing going here. The crowd Monday night was 416, and the crowd Tuesday night was 715. I didn't go to the championship game. The crowd for that game was 3783, probably a night where if I went, I wouldn't have been able to cheat forward in the seats.