Haniger brings giving spirit to kids in Hawaii

November 22nd, 2017
Mitch Haniger spent part of the holiday season renovating baseball fields and spreading his love for the game to kids in Hilo, Hawaii. (More Than A Game)

SEATTLE -- When baseball players plan their offseason workouts, they don't usually involve shoveling dirt, lining fields and painting dugouts. But Mitch Haniger had something different in mind last week, and it landed the Mariners right fielder in Hilo, Hawaii, getting down and dirty with dozens of happy kids.

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, Haniger found a way to give something back to the sport he loves by joining with former college teammate Mike Miller of the Red Sox in a grassroots charity called "More Than A Game."

For seven days, Haniger, Miller and a couple other volunteers literally dug in to renovate two rundown ballfields in Hilo and hold daily clinics for about 60 kids to help spark a baseball revival in the area.

"It was long days working," said Haniger, who put together a strong rookie season for Seattle last year after being acquired from the D-backs. "But it was fun. This side of the island definitely needed some help, and it's been great to give back to these kids and families, seeing the smiles on their faces."

Miller, who played for Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket club last year, joined up with the charity a few years ago and the group has done field renovations around Oakland and New England as well as Colombia, the Dominican, Panama and Cameroon.

This offseason, Miller asked Haniger, who played with him for three years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, to join the efforts in Hawaii.

"I jumped at the chance," Haniger said. "I wouldn't be where I'm at today without baseball."

Many players take part in coaching clinics to help kids, but the More Than A Game group takes things a step further by pitching in to clean up facilities and fields that need help.

"The two fields we worked on, they looked like they hadn't been worked on in years," Haniger said. "We had to resurface the infield, pull weeds, reestablish the lines and grass, put in a new mound and pitching rubber, home plate, everything. We made it look good."

The group even fixed up the dugouts and a concession stand between the fields that had been taken over by some homeless men. Miller said the hope is the facility will be used now to host tournaments and raise money on its own to allow baseball to flourish again in the community.

"Teams here had to travel all over the island to play because it wasn't safe here," Miller said. "So hopefully we're taking a step in the right direction."

Haniger said the experience reinforced the game at its basic level. He and Miller helped keep up the fields during their college days, so they weren't strangers to the work. But Haniger said he had renewed appreciation for the grounds crews in the Majors and Minor Leagues, as well as kids who just want to play ball and have fun.

"We've had so many things brought into our lives from baseball and so many fun experiences, the more we can share that with kids, the better," he said. "That's the goal, to help them have a field and place to just play."

And every afternoon, Haniger spent about 2 1/2 hours, until the sun went down, actually playing and teaching kids ages 5-14 about the game he loves.

"Baseball and sports have taught me so much about life and working hard and being persistent," he said. "That's something that will help me after baseball, for the rest of my life.

"That's my main message to these kids, that if you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want as long as you keep going at it as hard as you can."