Pro aspirations kept alive in Maui baseball
BY Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
WAIPAHU — On a Sunday afternoon, about 20 men were chasing their dream of playing pro baseball.
Na Koa Ikaika Maui, the state's latest professional baseball team, held open tryouts at Hans L'Orange Park. The team belongs to the 10-member independent Golden Baseball League, which has teams in Arizona, California, Utah, Canada and Mexico. Na Koa Ikaika will play home games at Maehara Stadium in Wailuku starting in May.
The team's manager, former big leaguer Cory Snyder, as well as general manager Scott Murray and pitching coach Brendan Sagara conducted the session with team president Rick Berry in attendance.
"I think there are about four or five kids here I really liked who have a chance to come to spring training with me," said Snyder, who declined to say which players.
The team is trying to fill its 22-player roster with as many Hawai'i players as possible. It already has signed Mark Okano ('Aiea '97), who is entering his fourth GBL season, Rodney Choy Foo (Kailua '00) and Rex Rundgren (Mid-Pacific '99). Also signing out of the Arizona Winter League was Maui High alumnus Joseph Kala.
"This is a high Double-A, Triple-A league," Snyder said. "There were 13 ex-big leaguers in the league last year. The competition is good. I would love to have as many (Hawai'i) players as we can. I know what kind of team I have to put on the field to compete, so if the players in the islands here can compete, I'm going to take as many as I can."
Yesterday's tryout drew players of various experience. Some ex-pros were looking for another shot, while some ex-college players were just looking for a chance.
Among the ex-pros was lefthanded pitcher Ian Mopas, a 2005 'Iolani graduate who was drafted and signed by the Minnesota Twins in 2006 out of Golden West JC. He spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons in rookie ball before being released. He spent last season rehabilitating his shoulder from bursitis.
"Felt pretty good to face live batters once again," said the 22-year-old Mopas.
Also hoping to get back into the pro game is pitcher Randy Castillo, drafted and signed by the Seattle Mariners in 2008 out of 'Aiea High.
"I could use it as a way (for exposure to get back into affiliated ball)," Castillo said.
Waipahu graduate and former big league pitcher Jerome Williams played for the Long Beach team in the GBL in 2008 before returning to affiliated ball the next season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and is now with the Oakland Athletics.
Kaimi Mead, drafted and signed by the Cleveland Indians in 2008 out of Hawai'i Pacific, has been offered a contract by Maui, but is awaiting offers from Major League affiliates or other independent leagues, he said. He pitched for the Maui coaching staff after the tryout, which he did not take part in.
"I would love for him to stay here," Snyder said of Mead.
Okano, who played at the University of New Mexico, has been in the GBL since 2007 with Orange County for two seasons and with two Canadian teams last season. At 31, he still harbors hope of hooking up with an MLB affiliate.
"That's always the goal," said the 31-year-old Okano, a personal trainer in the offseason.
That the team is now in his home state made it better.
"I was excited," Okano said. "I wanted to play for the home squad."
Berry said getting a GBL team here has been in the works for about three years. He said he wants to add three more teams in the state, two on O'ahu and one on the Big Island.
"That would cut down on travel (costs) for us and the teams coming in," Berry said. "They could have two or three teams to play against, so as soon as we get the Maui team up and running, then we'll start looking to expand."
Berry said Hans L'Orange and the University of Hawai'i's Les Murakami Stadium would be the venues considered. He had been in contact with UH for about three years regarding use of its facility. Murakami Stadium will be replacing its roof and restrooms this summer, stadium manager Glenn Nakaya said.
"We hope that next year is the year we can expand," Berry said.