Baseball, the cliché goes, is a game of inches. But for the members of Na Koa Ikaika Maui, it’s really a game of miles—as in the thousands of miles that separate them from their rivals in the independent North American League and the rest of the baseball world.
Take Garry Templeton, the team’s new manager. In another life, Templeton was an All-Star, switch-hitting shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres, considered one of the top middle infielders in the game.
Templeton spent 15 seasons in the Major Leagues. Since retiring in 1991 he’s bounced around, coaching in the Anaheim Angels’ farm system and then for various independent teams including, last year, the Chico Outlaws, who defeated Na Koa to claim the league championship. Now he prowls the dugout at Wailuku’s Iron Maehara Stadium—a world (and ocean) away from his glory days but still with the unmistakable air of an old pro.
By his side is his son, Garry Templeton II (don’t call him “junior,” he cautions with a smile) or “G2” as he’s known, the team’s hitting coach. The younger Templeton played professionally for nine seasons but never stuck in the Majors. He’s transitioned to coaching, he says, because he “wants to be around the game and be involved.” He says he’s learned a lot watching his dad and other coaches and managers he’s worked with. And while he may not have Garry Sr.’s resume, it’s obvious even after a brief conversation that he shares his father’s drive and quiet intensity.
“I’ve made my rounds all throughout the country, playing and pursuing my dream,” he says. “The dream’s just changed a little bit.”
For outfielder Mark Okano, the dream is at a different stage. Okano, an Oahu boy, has played in the North American League (formerly the Golden Baseball League) since 2007, including last year with Na Koa. He’s 32, long in the tooth by baseball standards, but doesn’t hide his desire to get back on the Major League radar.
“I’m trying to get picked up,” he says plainly. “The championship is always the thing, as a team. But as an individual goal, I’m trying to get picked up… In this league, that’s everyone’s goal. It should be. We don’t get paid enough to go, ‘oh we’re content with this.’ Every single guy here—on our team, the other team—wants to get picked up.”
“It could be the worst [Major League] team,” he adds. He laughs—but you can tell he means it.
Being a fan of a minor league or independent pro team is nothing like following one of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs. First, of course, there’s the quality of play. Where MLB can stock its franchises with the best of the best, farm systems and especially regional leagues are populated by an eclectic mix of young, raw talent and older guys chasing fading fantasies or merely playing for, to recycle another cliché, the love of the game.
Then there’s the turnover. It’s a paradox, but having players who are too good can actually hurt the team; the brightest stars will eventually be spotted and snatched up by Major League affiliates. Last year at midseason, Na Koa lost Keoni Ruth, its third-baseman and RBI leader, to the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a dream come true for Ruth, but a big blow for Maui. A month later the team lost its closer, Jamie Vermilyea, to the Toronto Blue Jays’ system.
Na Koa still managed to finish the season 56-26, good enough for first place in the South Division. And, after finishing near the bottom of the league in attendance, Na Koa packed Maehara Stadium for its one and only championship-series home game against Templeton’s Outlaws. Despite a disappointing season-ending defeat, it was clear Mauians had finally noticed: we have a professional baseball team.
Na Koa changed owners during the offseason amid financial instability and the league itself reshuffled, merging with the United Baseball League of Texas and Illinois’ Northern League. But ultimately, pro baseball returned to the Valley Isle.
The new owners, Harris Tulchin, Bob Young and Leroy Pettigrew, were on hand at the May 26 home opener to throw out ceremonial first pitches. And though Na Koa went on to lose 9-2 to the Lake County Fielders, the stands were mostly full of enthusiastic spectators. (Some were very enthusiastic, like the guy who brought a bell and rang it when the Fielders were at bat, shouting, “It’s your auntie on line one! It’s your girlfriend on line two!”)
Sure, there were reminders that we were a long way from Yankee Stadium. The balky scoreboard didn’t start working until the fourth inning, and then only intermittently. There were bald patches on the grass. The mic cut out a few times during “The Star-Spangled Banner” (though it worked flawlessly for “Hawaii Pono‘i”).
But there were also beer and hot dogs and burgers, brush-back pitches and pickoff throws and home runs careening through the night (off the bats of the Fielders, unfortunately). In short, there was baseball.
Roughly translated from Hawaiian to English, “Na Koa Ikaika” means “the mighty warriors.” And you’ve got to have a warrior’s spirit to play independent baseball. The pay is low and the perks are virtually nonexistent. Forget sprawling penthouses and flashy new cars—these guys ride the bus, and most live with local volunteer host families. (As of this writing several players were temporarily housed at the Maui Beach Hotel awaiting placement.)
Ask them, though, and to a man they’ll tell you it’s worth the sacrifice. “It’s my life. I’ve been playing ever since I was five years old and I never missed a season,” says 26-year-old Baldwin grad Gered “Moch” Mochizuki. Like Okano, Mochizuki’s goal is to get picked up by an affiliated organization. But he says he’s also looking to “get better and progress as a baseball player.” As a shortstop, he calls the arrival of Templeton “a godsend.”
“He told me a lot of things within two weeks that [have] definitely gotten me ready to play this season,” he says, adding that Templeton has encouraged him to utilize his speed and be “a spark plug on this team.”
While he’s dreamed of playing pro ball all his life, Mochizuki says he never imagined it would be on Maui. “[I want to] represent what kind of talent we’ve got out here and definitely represent where I come from,” he says.
Local success stories like World Series hero Shane Victorino of Wailuku and Kula-born Kurt Suzuki—both currently starting in the Majors—surely fuel the hopes of guys like Mochizuki. Other Na Koa players, meanwhile, have tasted the big time—and found it to be bittersweet.
A three-sport star from Monterey, California, outfielder J.J. Sherrill was drafted out of high school by the Cleveland Indians. He advanced as high as AA, but after seven seasons and a series of injuries he was cut loose in 2006.
Now 30 years old with a wife and children, he’s playing for his fifth independent club in as many years. “It’s different when you’re growing up. You’re naive to a lot of things in the world. You think you’re invincible,” he says. “[Now] baseball is just an opportunity for me to come out and be a part of a team, continue to further my career and play as long as I can. If I have the opportunity to get picked up again, that’s a positive. If not, I can just learn more about the game so I can give back to the kids around my area and the people that I end up coaching in the future.”
Sherrill says he’s enjoyed his brief time on Maui, visiting Hana and the West side, and that his wife and two kids (ages 12 and seven) will be joining him in July. “It’s been beautiful,” he says.
But don’t mistake Sherrill’s reflective tone for complacency. After lining out sharply in the opener against Lake County, he tossed his helmet on the dirt in disgust. It was one of the hardest hit balls of the night, and he had nothing to show for it.
Over the years, the former Golden Baseball League has attracted some big names. After stolen-base king Rickey Henderson ran out of Major League teams willing to take a chance on a 40-something outfielder, he signed with the San Diego Surf Dawgs, then of the GBL. (The team supposedly offered Henderson $1 million to enter the Hall of Fame wearing its colors.)
Last year, former Chicago Cubs phenom Mark Prior had a stint with the league’s Orange County Fliers as he looked to rebound from multiple arm injuries. And this year, ex-slugger and infamous steroid whistleblower Jose Canseco is the player/manager for the Yuma Scorpions, who make their first and only trip to Maui July 12-18.
Undoubtedly the intrigue will put butts in the seats, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The team employs all kinds of gimmicks—including, on opening night, an on-field hot dog eating contest between innings—to get people interested.
But in the end, the most compelling thing about the North American League and other leagues like it are the players who will probably never land an endorsement deal or even appear on a baseball card, but who keep pushing, keep playing until their bodies won’t let them anymore. Some might call it admirable; others might call it foolish. But no one can deny it takes unflappable dedication—to the game, and to the dream.
Then again, as Sherrill puts it: “I can’t really complain. I mean, I get to play baseball.”
For more about Na Koa Ikaika—including a downloadable schedule and ticket info—visit www.nakoaikaikamaui.com