Kolten Wong’s rise to majors has Hawaii buzzing with pride
ST. LOUIS — They will welcome Kolten Wong to his new home on Thursday night.
It’s the first meeting between a fan base that fancies itself the best in baseball and its second baseman of the foreseeable future.
But while the sound of thousands of hands clapping all at once will force anyone with firing synapses to realize this moment is special, it will pale in comparison to a buzz taking place more than 4,000 miles away.
Wong is one of five Hawaii-born players currently in the major leagues. He is the only one to debut this year. The hard-hitting lefty from Hilo, Hawaii, is just the second baseball player from his hometown to make baseball’s biggest stage — Onan Masaoka was the first, pitching for the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000.
Wong is a big deal on the islands of Hawaii, where friends, family and fans have been patiently waiting for this milestone since Wong started using his sweet swing — a stroke his father helped hone by having his son cut down trees with a machete — to send baseballs over fences.
An eight-plus-hour plane ride isn’t necessary to find out what Wong means to our 50th state. His support there is strong enough to cross the Pacific Ocean.
“There’s a lot of Kolten fever running around the island right now,” Billy Hull said.
Hull, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser baseball beat reporter, is the man with the machete story. He spent three years covering Wong. Hull can succinctly describe The Wong Effect.
“He’s front-page news,” Hull said.
When the Cardinals called up Wong, their fourth-ranked prospect, from Triple-A Memphis one week ago, word spread to media outlets in Hawaii before the Cardinals could even issue a news release. Any story related to the 22-year-old automatically runs above the fold. The Hawaii Tribune Herald runs a daily “Tracking Kolten” section to keep followers aware of Wong’s at-bats.
Everyone knew this was coming. Those who know Wong say his father Kaha sat his son down at a young age. They say the baseball coach and former minor leaguer told Kolten he would have to work hard every single day if he wanted to be a pro. They say Kolten agreed. The question was not if, but when.
Hull first saw Wong play as a 10th grader. At a showcase, the catcher smashed a ball off the wall of a park that no other kid came within 40 feet of.
Kids who could hit the ball like that didn’t usually make it to the University of Hawaii. Which meant Hawaii baseball coach Mike Trapasso, a St. Louis native, didn’t usually get a chance to coach them.
“We knew his talent,” Trapasso said. “It came down to whether he wanted to go to school or get a start in professional baseball out of high school. The reality is, the majority of kids who get drafted out of high school in the state of Hawaii like to sign.”
An example is Wong’s younger brother, Kean, who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays out of high school after being drafted in the fourth round this year. He is currently playing rookie ball. But his older brother turned down a $75,000 signing bonus offered by the Minnesota Twins in 2008 for a somewhat unexpected choice — school.
“That was interesting, how that happened,” Hawaii county mayor Billy Kenoi said. “A lot of kids — we are from a humble community. Kids get drafted and they take their shots. I congratulate them. It takes courage to do that. But Kolten went to college. We were kind of surprised, because of his talent. He went to the University of Hawaii, and it was, wow. He bucked the trend, and it worked out really well.”
Because there are no professional sports in Hawaii, the university is the biggest show. When a local star stays in state to go to college, it causes a stir. Attendance at Les Murakami Stadium grew when Wong relocated from Hilo to Honolulu and started playing. He gave them reasons to come back, then waited hours after games to sign autographs for anyone who approached.
“He is never too busy for anybody in this community,” Kenoi said. “That speaks a lot to his character. In Hawaii, we talk a lot about the Aloha Spirit. Kolten is always helping, lending a hand. He is always humble in his success.”
In three seasons, Wong switched from catcher to center fielder to second base. He did folklorish things, like hitting three home runs in a game as a freshman and spearheading a Rainbows run to the NCAA regional championship game his sophomore season. He started every game he played at Hawaii (178), averaged .358 at the plate and totaled 25 home runs, 145 RBI and 245 hits.
When the Cardinals drafted him in 2011 and signed him for more than $1 million, Kenoi made the party official in his county.
“We made it when he was drafted,” Kenoi said. “We had a celebration in our office.”
On the Big Island, June 15, 2011, was Kolten Wong Day. That same excitement is back now that Wong’s apprenticeship in the minor leagues appears to be over.
“Playing in the major leagues,” Kenoi said. “Scoring. Driving in runs. Turning in double plays. I’m going to jump on a plane. If the Cardinals have a game on the West Coast, I’m going to fly out. I want to go cheer him on in person.”
Until then, the mayor will continue to track Wong’s stats online and look into setting up a cable feed in his office so he can host a watch party during a Cardinals game.
“We are just cheering him on,” Kenoi said. “We couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Meanwhile, Hull will make sure Wong fans get the news they crave in their newspaper, and Trapasso will watch his former star start for his hometown major league team.
“It’s still really fresh in everyone’s mind here,” Trapasso said. “Because it’s only been three years since he left UH. Him being a local boy, being from the Big Island, from Hilo, there is a special bond with our local players.”
Wong recorded his first major league hit Monday. After he beat out a throw on an infield single in the sixth inning and the Cardinals beat the Brewers 8-5 in Milwaukee, he returned to his locker, looked at his phone and saw a text message from his former coach.
“Go ‘Bows,” it read. “Go 808.”
The folks back home will always be his biggest fans.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.