HAWAI'I WINTER BASEBALL
Time's right for league's return
By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stacy Kaneshiro
In retrospect, Hawaii Winter Baseball was ahead of its time the first time around.
That is the feeling of league founder Duane Kurisu, who formally announced the return of professional baseball here at a press conference yesterday at the Willows Restaurant.
The developmental off-season league for Major League Baseball and some Asian professional leagues operated from 1993 to 1997, discontinuing because of a lack of financial support from MLB.
But with MLB footing salaries for its players and coaches this time around, as well as heightened interest in international baseball, Kurisu feels this is a prime time for the league's return.
"That was a big issue," Kurisu said of MLB's willingness to pay its players salaries. "The first five years (of HWB), international baseball and the connection with Major League Baseball (was not there). We were ahead of our time. I think (now) we're right on the mark."
Kurisu said HWB paid about $600,000 to $800,000 in salaries during one of the seasons for the minor-league players and coaches of the MLB teams. But with the salaries issue resolved, sponsorships lined up locally and abroad, and live telecasts to Asia, the league apparently is economically viable.
"We should break even," Kurisu said. "As long as it breaks even, I'm fine."
The dynamics have changed since then. International baseball interest has increased because of players such as Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, and Kenji Johjima and Chicago White Sox's Tadahito Iguchi, and with the playing of the first World Baseball Classic in March. Kurisu said Japanese tour agencies are inquiring about bringing groups here.
"Before, we had to look for these guys," Kurisu said of the Japanese tour agencies. "Now, we have guys stepping up to the plate."
AN O'AHU-ONLY LEAGUE
One cost-cutting measure is containing the league to O'ahu. The original league had the Honolulu Sharks, Maui Stringrays, Hilo Stars and Kauai Emeralds (later became West Oahu CaneFires). The new league as the Sharks and Canefires joined by the Waikiki BeachBoys and North Shore Honu. The Sharks and BeachBoys will play their "home" games at Les Murakami Stadium and the CaneFires and Honu will play their "home" games at Hans L'Orange Park in Waipahu.
The move is somewhat controversial because the Neighbor Islands displayed stronger fan support than O'ahu. But Kurisu said MLB wanted the teams on one island for the convenience of their scouts. Also, Kurisu said because the interisland air carriers in recent years cut back flights, it was difficult to find 30 seats to accommodate travel for players. He said MLB wants HWB to stay exclusively on O'ahu for the first two years.
"We have a track record (from the previous league) and they want to see if we're going to maintain it," Kurisu said. "If we accomplish that, we'll be fine (for expansion to the Neighbor Islands)."
Naturally, there has been some backlash from Neighbor Island fans, Kurisu said.
"The reality is even if we wanted to do it, it wasn't our call," he said.
But he is adamant about returning to Maui and the Big Island. He said with the new interisland air carriers joining the competition, there might be more seats available.
"We need to go back to Maui and the Big Island because the (teams) ... were an important fabric of the community," he said.
ROSTERS NAMED LATER
The league won't know which players the professional leagues will be sending until September. The coaches of the teams also will be named later. There will be 28 players per team, of which at least two will have ties to Hawai'i, the league said. The players in the past league were usually from Class A or AA, or prospects about a season or two away from the majors.
The 40-game season runs Oct. 1 to Nov. 20 with a championship between division champions on Nov. 22.
Season tickets are sold by sites. Season tickets for games at Murakami Stadium are $200 and $150 at Hans L'Orange. Individual ticket prices have not been announced and will go on sale later.
Reach Stacy Kaneshiro at email@example.com.