The first thing they notice is the sound.
Professional baseball scouts, longtime college recruiters to the islands, and opposing coaches, they all hear it.
They used to say the way the ball came off Ted Williams’ bat created a sound like no other, and there is nothing here that will compare that sound to Jodd Carter’s swing, or that of any of the others in Hilo who learned to hit by taking lessons from Kaha Wong.
He developed two sons who signed multi-million dollar baseball contracts. They aren’t big guys, they aren’t freak of nature athletes whose raw talent carried them to sign with big league teams.
The four active professional players produced out of Wong’s batting cages could all get lost in a crowd. They are all fit and flexible, they eat smart, work hard and play better than most, but in civilian clothes at the mall, they are not people who would attract a crowd, like, say a 230-pound home run basher with Popeye muscles.
But put a wood bat in their hands? Like one Carter was swinging last week in Wong’s secluded warehouse? The sound is sharp, explosive, like the crack of a bullwhip compared to slapping a balled up fist into an open palm.
“(Kaha Wong’s students) make a different sound when they hit the ball,” said Cory Hunter, the baseball coach at Kailua High School. “I think it has something to do with bat speed, but if I’m in the stands at a game, I could turn my back to the plate and hear the difference when (Wong’s) kids hit.
“The exit velocity off the bat is really different. When his kids hit, it doesn’t sound like kids hitting, it sounds like men.”
That sweet, suddenly discordant, cracking sound came off Carter’s bat like a machine gun in Wong’s cages last week. It’s the sound that tells him he is succeeding.
Carter, who turned 22 last summer, has been playing baseball for 19 years, with a memory that doesn’t go back quite that far.
“I do remember a little T-ball,” he said after a morning session in the cages, “and I remember being in coaches’ pitch, but I don’t remember starting, or the first game or anything.
“It’s been my life, basically,” he said.
And it’s been good, the arc of the journey bending toward professional success.
He’s five years into the profession and has an opportunity in 2019 to propel himself to a major league roster if he opens the season again at Akron, a AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians who drafted him in the 24th round out of Hilo High School in 2014.
If it seems a long time to be in the minors without a call up, considering that Carter was playing professionally for Cleveland’s rookie league teams in Arizona when he was 17. He posted a .291 batting average off 127 plate appearances and had the look of a kid who knew how to handle a bat.
If he is placed on the Akron team this season he will view the opportunity like everyone else — AA baseball is, more often than not, the launching pad to the big leagues and there’s a sense that the higher he climbs organizationally, the better he will do at the plate.
That’s because of his training, first, but also because pitchers in the lower minors haven’t been developed well enough to deliver major league pitches. In the Big Show, pitchers know how to jam a batter inside with a rising fastball and they have enough confidence in their pitches to next deliver a slider that looks like the same speed then dives low and away, sending the batter chasing the pitch. But until they develop confidence, pitchers in the low minors often have one or two pitches they’re confident in and they will throw them at any point in the at-bat.
Big league batters hate doing rehab assignments in those leagues because they struggle with the discontinuity they see from the mound. When the count calls for a certain kind of pitch in a certain area that ties batters in knots, it’s a mental battle. But in the lower minors, it’s a crazy grab bag or randomness.
“It’s all about confidence,” Carter said of hitting off professional pitchers. “You get that confidence through mechanics and that’s the job, that’s what you every day, you keep in touch with your mechanics and do what you can at the plate.
“Sometimes, if you’re struggling, all you need is to get on base again, maybe you drop down a bunt, maybe you hit the ball good right at someone and they throw it away, so you’re on base on an error. That can be enough because you know you hit it well and you got rewarded, that can be your confidence builder.”
Carter takes a few weeks off after baseball season ends, then he gets back in the cage. When he’s active, like now, gearing up for spring training in the first week of March, Carter hits everyday. He hits in the morning, he hits in the afternoon. He does cross training, he is involved on a daily basis with improving himself, in and out of season.
He has been so ingrained in Wong’s system of teaching, Carter can feel when his swing is off just a bit, even if he can’t immediately identify the exact problem. He still knows from his muscle memory that something is slightly out of alignment.
Coming up through Little League and high school ball in Hilo, Carter had a good natural swing, good enough that Wong didn’t make drastic adjustments to it, just some little tweaks here and there. Enough to indicate when something wasn’t quite right, but in season, he has an organizational fix.
“(The Cleveland organization) is really good about having film available to us,” Carter said, “they have everything available right after the game. Cameras from center field, behind the plate, first base, you can look at your swing from every angle, it’s a great help.”
This season he intends to cut down on strikeouts and make a move upward, but regardless, he is aware of the support he has from there Hilo baseball community.
“A lot of people say they want to trade places with me whenever I’m home,” he said, then with a smile, he added, “they probably don’t know you play 142 games in about 160 days, you rarely get a day off and then you get the occasional 12-hour bus ride and you live in a hotel day after day.
“It’s a grind,” he said.
A grind that rewards or punishes on a daily basis, but when you hear that sound off the bat — the sound men make when they get direct contact with a baseball — you know you’re headed in the right direction.
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