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August 18, 2006

Future Shock

Go West, Young Men....WAY West

by Kevin Goldstein

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One of the best things about the prospect beat is that baseball never really ends. Once the regular season ends, some of the top prospects in the game (well, at least the hitting ones) head to the desert for the Arizona Fall League. Once that is done, baseball continues in Latin America with winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Once those leagues end with the annual Caribbean Series, spring training starts and the cycle begins anew.

This year a new league is returning from a nearly decade-long hiatus, and it's easy to imagine scouts already wrestling for this assignment.

Get ready for the return of Hawaii Winter Baseball.

The history of baseball in Hawaii is a surprisingly long one. "A lot of people don't realize it, but we've had baseball here longer than most places in the continental U.S.," said Dave Rolf, who handles publicity of the league.

Just three years after creating some of the original rules for the sport in New York, Alexander Cartwright moved west to San Francisco, and then Hawaii in 1849, bringing his new game with him. Official records for games in Hawaii go back to the 1860s, and Hawaii can be credited as a key player in the internationalization of the game, as Japanese workers who learned the game there brought it back to their home country, where it flourished.

During the first half of the 20th century, exhibitions and All-Star games featuring Babe Ruth and other major stars were routine, and Honolulu had a successful Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League for 27 years, before it was moved to Colorado Springs after the 1987 season.

When a group of local businessman began to form a winter league in the early 90s, it caught the attention of local businessman Duane Kurisu, a business magnate who made his money in commercial real estate and now owns a minority stake in the San Francisco Giants, as well as stakes in a number of Hawaii companies including newspapers, radio stations and Aloha Airlines.

Kurisu had always had a passion for the game, and when he heard about the league in 1992 he went to the league offices to buy some tickets, and was informed that the league was in trouble before it even began, and that the new league's outlook was bleak.

Baseball returning to Hawaii had been a dream of Kurisu's for some time, so to make the dream come true, Kurisu decided to make a bold move.

He bought the league.

"When I got involved with it there was nothing in place--no agreements with any leagues," said Kurisu. "I didn't know what I was doing."

Within 18 months, professional baseball was being played once again in Hawaii. Kurisu assembled a staff, the overwhelming majority of which remain in place today, to gain sponsors, create agreements with professional leagues and deal with the administrative work involved with establishing a new league, and Kurisu's plans for the league was a unique one.

"Duane's vision was always an international one," said Rolf. "He wanted players from the United Stats and countries from all over the Pacific to gather here and hone their skills, and then hopefully flourish in their respective leagues."

And while Kurisu set on Opening Day for October of 1993, his league almost met the same fate of the one he bought. "I look back and it seems funny now--but it was scary then," recalled Kurisu. "We were selling tickets and selling sponsorship, but we had no deals in place for players until Labor Day."

In the first season, 16 major league teams, as well as three Japanese teams and four from Korea placed players on one of four teams in the new league, and the talent level was impressive. The Maui Stingrays featured Craig Counsell and 18-year-old San Diego first-round pick Derrek Lee, The Kauai Emeralds were led by third baseman Jason Giambi and the Honolulu Sharks had hometown hero Benny Agbayani patrolling the outfield.

But the team to see in that inaugural season was the Hilo Stars, whose top American player was then-Giants farmhand Bill Mueller, but had a 20-year-old Japanese prospect that everyone wanted to see. For many scouts, it was their first opportunity to see the player simply called "Ichiro", and the following season he'd hit .385 in his first full-season for Orix.

The league operated for five years and the alumni list features 130 players who made it to the big leagues, including Todd Helton, A.J. Pierzynski and Preston Wilson, as well as a number of Japanese stars who would eventually play here, like Kenji Johjima, Kazuo Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi.

In the final year, total attendance was a record-high 112,761, or just over 1,000 fans per game. That figure is roughly four times the average of the Arizona Fall League.

Nonetheless, the league was faltering financially. The 1990s are commonly referred to as "The Lost Decade" by locals, as the state's economy went through an unprecedented downturn. Operations ceased following the season.

"Duane was subsidizing the league considerably, the league was responsible for paying the players, and MLB was unable to pick up any costs," said Rolf. "It just didn't make any sense financially."

"I've been involved in so many business ventures over my life," Kurisu added. "Professional sports are by far the most difficult."

While the games stopped, Kurisu refused to end the dream. He kept the offices open, and kept the organization busy by promoting the game he loved in the home that he loved. "We stayed alive and we stayed true to our mission of making a contribution to baseball in Hawaii," said Kurisu. "We held international baseball camps with players from around the world with Cal Ripken Jr. and other camps with Dusty Baker. Everything we did during that time was about perpetuating and building baseball in Hawaii."

"But our long-term plan was always to bring the league back," added Kurisu.

It took nearly ten years, but things started coming together again last year. "The idea always had life, and Major League Baseball always knew we wanted to come back, and over the past few years, the mutual interest grew," said Kurisu. "Everything started coming together again. We got sponsors and interest from Japan and stepped up our relationship with MLB."

Opening Day for the 2006 Hawaii Winter Baseball is October 1st, and the league will features four teams playing in two stadiums. For now, players will come only from the major leagues and Japan at about a 60/40 split, but Kurisu remains confident that other Asia nations, including Korea and Taiwan will participate in future years.

The league is an official recognized winter league by Major League Baseball, though participation is optional. While details could not be given at press time, Kurisu indicated that 21 of 30 teams are participating, and he expects many top players from the A and Double-A levels. "We are expecting top prospects," said Kurisu. "One of the things that is most pleasing to me is that in the 90s, we had many players who became major league stars--I expect that to continue."

Teams participating and official rosters are expected to be announced by September 1st, and while the exact level of talent is not clear yet, Red Sox Vice President of Player Personnel Ben Cherington, who sits on the league's Executive Committee, indicated that his organization will be sending four players from their A-level teams along with one member of their coaching staff. "It's a great opportunity for these players to go out and test themselves against better competition," said Cherington.

In addition, the league will operate differently on a cost level. Kurisu and his staff have already shored up major sponsors, including Sony, and they already have a deal with a local television channel to broadcast tape-delayed games on Wednesdays. They've also drawn some interest from Japan where some occasional broadcasts may get picked up.

In addition, Kurisu won't be writing as many checks as he once did. "MLB will be paying the salaries of the players and the coaches, while in the 90s we were paying the majority of salaries and benefits," added Kurisu. "We are working much more like a real minor league now."

Also, the new league will create a modern minor league atmosphere, with all the bells and whistles and in-between entertainment one would expect, unlike the relatively sterile atmosphere of the Arizona Fall League. While the league looks like it could be a hit, Kurisu insists that has love of the game is far more important than the bottom line this time around.

"I love this game and I'm extremely passionate about the culture of Hawaii and sharing it with people around the world," said Kurisu. "We expect Opening Day to be sold out, but where it goes beyond that, we don't know. Financially, I'm hoping at best to just break even."

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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