PITTSBURGH -- Kolten Wong may have put Hilo, Hawaii, on the baseball map with his ascension to the Majors in 2013, but the largest city on what is commonly referred to as the Big Island is making its mark on the youth baseball circuit, as well.Hilo recently won the Senior
PITTSBURGH -- Kolten Wong may have put Hilo, Hawaii, on the baseball map with his ascension to the Majors in 2013, but the largest city on what is commonly referred to as the Big Island is making its mark on the youth baseball circuit, as well.
Hilo recently won the Senior Baseball Division Championship of the 2017 Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series to earn the city's first title in the 25-year history of that tournament. Meanwhile, Hilo's PONY League team (11-12-year-old division) captured its fourth state title in the last five seasons, and Hilo's Little League team secured its first state Majors championship in 30 years.
That Little League team went on to advance to the semifinals of the West Regional, where it lost to a team from Santa Margarita (Calif.). Two more wins would have put the group in the Little League World Series, where players would have gotten an opportunity to meet Wong in Williamsport, Pa., when the Cardinals and Pirates play in the Little League Classic on Sunday (6 p.m. CT on ESPN).
"I wanted them to be there so badly just to be able to see those guys and be able to cheer them on and see Hilo back in the World Series [for the first time since 1961]," said Wong, who tuned into that semifinal game. "I was hoping things would go differently."
Wong, who is the third Hilo-born player to reach the Majors, has had an intimate view of the town's growing baseball tradition. His father, Kaha, still runs a hitting facility in Hilo, where he works with many of the area's youth players. And Wong is so close to Hilo's current Little League coach, Bubba Lancaster, that he refers to him as "like another dad to me."
Wong noted, too, that for many kids in Hilo, baseball is more than just a recreational activity. It can also open up doors.
"In Hawaii, that's always been my dad's main goal -- to get these kids off [the island] and get them some kind of education and hopefully let them try to chase their dream of baseball as well," Wong said. "That was my goal growing up. I wanted to see how I could go and worst case, I would be able to use baseball to get to college and then be able to get a good job.
"It's one of those islands that if you don't do anything, you kind of just stay stagnant and stuck on the island. In Hawaii, because we're bound to that little rock, it's hard to get off."
Wong serves as the example of just how far baseball can take a kid away from Hilo, and he recognizes his role in serving as an ambassador for the sport in his hometown. When he visits in the offseason, Wong will spend time at his dad's hitting facility, talking to children and sharing the story of his journey.
"I play this game for that reason -- to show these kids back home that if you put your mind to it and you work hard that eventually things can go your way and you can chase your dream," Wong said. "I've always, since I was a little kid, thought this was something I wanted to do and wanted to pursue until my time ran out. And thankfully, it hasn't run out yet."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.