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Wright On: Hoopii-Haslam still a hit; still living the dream

  • BART WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald
    Laupahoehoe’s Ridge Hoopii-Haslam is a ballplayer at heart and still following his pro baseball dreams.

If you eat and breathe baseball, maybe spend an hour or more every morning on the internet analyzing last night’s games and then a couple more hours at night, if it’s the only sport you truly care about, then you probably knew about Ryan Brasier.

The rest of us had a surprise in store when we saw the 31 year-old minor league veteran called out of the Red Sox bullpen to get some late-inning outs in the postseason.

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His career prior to this season consisted of 10 years in the minor leagues and appearances in seven games with the Angels, five years ago. Brasier had a 39-38 record after a decade of minor league ball. He played for teams in places like Rancho Cucamonga, Orem, Utah, as well as in Mexico and the minor leagues of Japan.

On a Red Sox minor league contract this season, the baseball gods gifted Brasier with an opportunity following a cascade of issues within the Boston system.

Stuff happened, as they say. Brasier’s story of a professional career rising to the moment after a decade of being a virtually nameless, faceless piece of various team’s minor league systems sounds like an extreme outlier. But baseball is a funny game in that respect, opportunities can materialize when you least expect it.

Consider Laupahoehoe’s Ridge Hoopii-Haslam who found his way to professional baseball — Independent League version — through a Facebook message.

A what?

In the big picture, chances of finding yourself in the bullpen rotation for the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after a decade in the minors are about as good as being offered a professional opportunity in a Facebook message. But an opportunity is not to be ignored.

“Anything is possible,” Hoopii-Haslam said last week in an interview at Liliuokalani Park after he returned from his second season with the Joliet Slammers who just won the Frontier League championship. “I didn’t get drafted, but I got a chance to play independent ball, and that gives me hope.”

A utility player in his mid-20’s who has performed at every position on the field except catcher, you could say Hoopii-Haslam is a lifer. Baseball and the island life are at the core of his being. This is what he does and it reflects who he is.

“This is my life,” he said. “This is what I have always done and what I have always wanted to do. Baseball is a part of me and I will always be a part of baseball, in some way, some place, somehow.”

As a teenager, he moved to Hilo High School for the broader opportunity to explore baseball there after having having his eyes opened on the game. He had been coached early by Baba Lancaster, the well-known Big Island youth baseball coach — now in his first year at Hilo High — and then by Kaha Wong, who began with Hoopii-Haslam when the youngster was only 8 years of age, one of Wong’s early students.

He comes from a family that he said, “lives off the land; we hunt, we fish, we spearfish, it’s what we do and what we’ve always done.”

The steady comfort of his ohana has allowed Hoopii-Haslam to focus on baseball because his dedication to the game erased part of what you would consider a normal childhood.

“It’s all I wanted,” he said of baseball, “I didn’t hang out or whatever, doing the regular stuff, I played baseball every day. Every. Day. I was around Kean and Kolton (Wong, Kaha’s two AAA and major league ball paying sons), and I got my direction from Kaha.

“I owe everything to Kaha,” he said. “He took me under his wing and he showed me what this game is all about. He taught me some technique things but what he taught me that helped the most was discipline. He stressed it, every day work if you really want to get better, you have to get your mind on that and look to make some kind of progress every day.

“Kaha gave me the courage to challenge myself and take this on,” Hoopii-Haslam said. “He inspired me, he made me believe, but mostly, he gave me the courage I needed.”

Things changed, after his name wasn’t called in the MLB draft following his senior year. Later, received a Facebook message from someone he didn’t know, something about playing ball. Skeptical, he spent time going back and forth, researching what he was being told. They wanted him to play? It was an independent league? You get paid and there are always major league scouts looking for something others might have missed? There’s a plane ticket for me?

“It was wild,” Hoopii-Haslam said, “they put me on a plane and the next day I was playing.”

That was four years ago when he made his debut with the delightfully named Texas AirHogs in Grand Prairie, Texas, outside of Dallas.

One day he was sitting in Hilo considering his next steps, the next day he was an AirHog.

“You can say I am living my dream, I guess,” he said, “because whether Independent League, Major League, my dream was to be a professional baseball player, and that’s what I’m doing right now.

“Of course I want to move up, and I think I will, but to be where I am means I’m in a position where I have a chance, compared to sitting home and not playing anywhere.”

He’s aware that his baseball playing days might not escape Independent League ball, he has played with a 38-year-old veteran who lives every day to play another game. As an adolescent, he began to believe he might be able to play this game as an adult.

Lancaster was an early, helpful presence for Hoopii-Haslam, and their relationship remains mutually respectful. Staring his first season coaching the Vikings, Lancaster named Hoopii-Haslem his junior varsity coach and assistant head coach on the varsity. He will coach the team through its abbreviated December-January schedule and then head out for spring training, which the Joliet club conducts in its home ballpark.

After four season of Independent League baseball, where salaries range from $600 to $1,600 a month, Hoopii-Haslam is more convinced he will have a baseball future than at any previous point in his life. He has had a long time manager tell him he will make the former Vikings’ baseball player a coach one day. He has a desire to teach and pass on knowledge as an instructor but he thinks he also has a chance to move up as a player.

Throughout the 2018 season, Hoopii-Haslam was tracked on a regular basis by a scout from a major league team on the West Coast. They would talk after games, in the afternoon before games, and at a couple lunch meetings. The research wasn’t about stats, those are a click away. Instead, the interest was in understanding Hoopii-Haslam’s dedication to the game, his willingness to find a role, even a bit role.

“He knew I could do a lot of things,” Hoopii-Haslam said of the scout from the organization that shall remain nameless, “he knew my relationship with Kolten, but I think he really wanted to know more about me, like what made me tick? What are my motivations?

“I think he found I’m a team guy, that my motivation is winning. I’ll play defense, I’ll pinch-run or pinch-hit, I’ll do whatever it takes to contribute to a winner.”

More than basic skills, it’s the attitude, the mental discipline that helps players climb the organizational ladder to the big leagues.

“Baseball has taken me around the world, around the country,” he said, “it has given me a lot and the game of baseball owes me nothing, not one thing. I’m the one who owes baseball so much and I work everyday to pay the game back for all it has given me.”

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Whether that mental discipline gets noticed and rewarded by a major league organization remains to be seen, whether he finds himself in the Big Show next year, is a genuine long shot, but in the big picture, we know that persistence pays off when you respect the game and keep working at it.

Suggestions? Topics? Whistleblower complaints? Contact Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com.