‘A little surprised’ by signing, Hilo’s Ocean Gabonia primed to chase dream with Yankees

  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald file photo Hilo High alum Ocean Gabonia said the Yankees had contacted him throughout the week before signing him Sunday. “They want met to perfect my craft, work on getting my ball in the zone, and I’ll be learning to face batters with higher velocity,” Gabonia said. “That’ll be my biggest improvement.”

Major League Baseball teams have found hidden diamonds all over the place such as under haystacks and remote places like Hilo and Panama.

Ocean Gabonia, a 2019 Hilo High graduate and Everett College right-hander, is hoping to be the next uncovered gem for the New York Yankees, who signed him for $20,000 on Sunday as an undrafted free agent.

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“I’m a little surprised,” he said. “But I knew I worked hard for it for them to have interest in me. They contacted me throughout the week, letting me know what might happen. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”

The Yankees also signed three other undrafted right-handers: Kentucky’s Carson Coleman, Central Florida’s Trevor Holloway, and BYU’s Jarrod Lessar.

New York drafted Northwest Florida right-hander Beck Way in the fourth round, adding five collegiate arms to its farm system’s depth.

The MLB draft was limited to five rounds. Teams were allowed to sign an unlimited amount of undrafted players to a maximum bonus of $20,000 each.

Gabonia stands out from the rest. He’s 6 feet 1, 175 pounds, limited in experience and age. He turns 19 next month and hasn’t pitched in blue-chip competition like the Cape Cod league, where Coleman spent last summer.

The other Yankees pitchers are at least 6-2, 190 pounds and 20 years old, a typical MLB scouting profile.

Gabonia thew 84 mph fastballs for the Vikings in 2019 and improved his velocity to 88-89, topping out at 91 mph, at a preseason Northwest Athletic Conference showcase last year.

The Yankees liked Gabonia’s “lively and loose arm,” his mechanics and mound presence. They also liked his passion and heart for the game on the mound.

Gabonia wasn’t listed on Baseball America’s or MLB.com’s prospects lists. He’s probably the most unlikely undrafted signing for 2020.

But shots in the dark have worked before.

The Yankees made one of the greatest discoveries when they signed Mariano Rivera, a 155-pound right-hander in 1990 for $2,500 out of a tryout camp.

Years later, Rivera developed and claimed God gave him his renown cut fastball and a bump in velocity to 97 mph.

There will probably never be another uncovered Hall of Fame gem like Rivera, but the MLB draft isn’t an exact science. The Yankees already acquired four collegiate pitchers who fit the same profile.

Why not roll the dice on someone whose scouting report of lively and loose arm, sound mechanics and mound presence fits the description of their greatest bullpen arm?

“They want met to perfect my craft, work on getting my ball in the zone, and I’ll be learning to face batters with higher velocity,” Gabonia said. “That’ll be my biggest improvement.”

He joins Edgar Barclay, a St. Joseph graduate, in the Yankees’ farm system. He’s already talked to Barclay and asked about the organization.

“He said it’s a good organization and they treat their players very well,” Gabonia said. “They said they’ll send me to Florida (Tampa) for rookie ball. They said they’ll let me know when.”

The minor league season and all operations are being held hostage while MLB and the players union hammer out a working contract for the quickly diminishing season.

Meanwhile, Gabonia, like the rest of his fellow minor leaguers, will be stuck at home.

“They want me to keep in shape and do what I need to do to work on,” he said. “It’s hard to do anything with the coronavirus pandemic going on with pro ball.”

Gabonia posted an 0-2 record with a 2.40 ERA in 15 inning and struck out 23 at Everett. But he’s got a chance to chase his dream and advice for anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps.

“Keep working hard and don’t let anybody get in your way of your dreams,” he said. “If you have passion and love then by all means go ahead and achieve it. Never take things for granted and always push toward your ultimate goal.”

The only thing more unlikely than Gabonia signing was converting his father Ronald Gabonia, who’s a diehard Boston Red Sox fan.

“He’s a Boston fan. But he’s still happy for me,” Gabonia said. “I think he might change teams now. He was happy when they finally broke the curse and won the World Series (in 2004).”

Sticking to his allegiance, father may remind his son that the Red Sox also captured World Series titles in 2007, 2013, and 2018. The latest new Yankee can counter that his team won titles in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009 — all with Rivera as the closer and outnumbers Boston in titles, 27-9.

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“I thank God for everything he has given me, just the passion to play passion,” said Gabonia.

That’s the thing about hidden gems. Maybe one day they wake up and have a Hall of Fame cut fastball.

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