Play ball! never gets old: Kupuna softball offers youthful mix of fun, exercise

  • BART WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald From left, Kupuna softball players Richard Rasay, Rico Rapoza and Stanley Pacheco Jr. have been playing ball on the Big Island since Little League.

It’s been 55 years for three of them, even more for one since they last played Little League baseball together in Hilo for Joe Estrella.

Richard Rasay, Rico Rapoza and Stanley Pacheco Jr., all 66, and teammate Randy Okimura, 67, couldn’t shake the game.

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You could say a chunk of them never grew up, they couldn’t let go of that joyful youth baseball experience, so they just kept playing, right into the Hawaii Kupuna Softball tournament, which starts Wednesday at Walter Victor complex.

“When?” said Rapoza, asked if he thought about the day he might hang it up and stop playing? “I never thought about it. I guess if I can’t get out there, I can’t play anymore.”

They are all dedicated, as indicated by their decades of competition in a love affair with a game that feels a part of who they each are.

Any regrets?

Oh, there’s a regret, all right, and the three who were in Hilo earlier in the week, almost responded in a chorus when asked about baseball regrets.

“Wainaku,” said Rasay, and and Rapozo and Pacheco jumped in to confirm the memory.

“We were good in Little League,” said Rapozo, who now plays for Ku’ikahi. “We beat everybody except Wainaku, we could not beat them. We would play well, we’d be right there and something would happen and we wouldn’t win, somehow.

“When I pitched,” he said, “we were supposed to win, and that’s how it went, except when we played Wainaku.”

“We were as good as anybody,” said Pacheco, who is on Kua’aina, “but we always came in second to them. They were a team of Asian kids, not many big guys, but boy, could they play baseball. They got us every time.”

But they continued to play after Little League, Pacheco made the Hilo High School team, the others didn’t make the cut, but they found spots in PONY, Colt, they moved on to Senior League ball, they played fast pitch and slow pitch softball, and for the last few decades they have all been secure in their kupuna teams.

What they enjoy about the games today is the play, itself, but apart from the obvious, it comes down to a feeling of being a part of something bigger, being in a larger community.

“It’s the camaraderie,” said Kona Gold’s Rasay, who played at a younger age than the others and then joined them in Little League. “The feeling that when you get to the game, you’ll be with people who you know and like, even when they are on the other team.

“The home team always puts out a spread,” he said, “and the food after the game, the conversation, the laughter? It’s a great thing, I can’t imagine not being a part of it.”

Pacheco said, “People tend to forget that we’re having fun, yes, but we’re out there running around, we’re stretching, throwing, twisting the body when we swing, we’re getting some exercise and we’re having fun. You can’t beat that.”

They play softball virtually all year but kupuna scheduling has a quirk reminiscent maybe of only college football, in this country.

After the two-day tournament in Hilo, it’s on to the state tournament — in another month in Kailua-Kona.

“It seems weird,” said Rasay to be playing all the time, then after the county tournament you’re off. But we will continue to practice, we’ll rest up and then go play some more.”

It’s a long way culturally from those Little League days when they all grew up in a rough housing area near St. Joseph High School, where they played on the ball field.

“It was not like it is now,” Rasay said, “it was rough and tumble, there were fights and parents were worried. My mother had a rule that we had to be in the house by 4 p.m. everyday. That was a pretty early curfew, even for kids.”

Times change, today, that neighborhood is a safe place to walk at 4 in the afternoon and at their ages, you don’t have to worry about them being out too late.

If they get to the game on time, it’s all good.

A kid’s game

What: Hawaii Kupuna Softball tournament

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When: Wednesday (games start at 9 a.m.) and Thursday (games start at 8:30 a.m.)

Where: Walter Victor complex

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