By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Keone Kela, who holds Hilo in his heart, is another name representing the Big Island in the Major League Baseball farm systems, joining Kolten Wong of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Blake Amaral of the Los Angeles Angels.
Kela, a 6-foot, 205-pound right-hander, was drafted in the 12th round by the Texas Rangers out of Everett (Wash.) Community College. Last year, he was picked in the 29th round by the Seattle Mariners out of Chief Sealth International (Wash.) High.
He’s not from the Big Island or was even born here. But his roots extend deep. His grandparents, George and Colleen Kela, live in Keaukaha. Also, his cell phone number has the 808 digits.
“Since I was born (in Los Angeles) I was going back and forth every summer, some Christmas times, spending time and seeing the whole family,” Kela said. “I would come back to Hilo and go to Puhi Bay. My favorite time is my days at Puhi Bay, relaxing with family, everybody jamming with all my cousins and having a cookout.
“That’s always a big thing. It’s a different vibe in Hilo. It’s a different spiritual feeling from the mainland. I can’t explain it. When you go to the islands, you go clean.”
Despite growing up on the mainland, Kela would pass for the average local, with the innate ability to speak pigeon. Although, he has to keep that jargon in his back pocket at the ballpark. He plays a game for a living, but it’s run strictly as a business, from mound poise down to off-the-field demeanor.
“All my cousins speak pigeon. It’s deep in my grandpa. My grandma speaks pigeon,” he said. “I comprehend everything. My dad (John) kept the culture, pigeon and the ohana feeling. I’ve always had pigeon in me, but on the mainland you’ve got to switch it up.”
Kela, 19, is at the rookie Arizona League, where organizations send recent draft picks. Amaral is in the same league. The AZL is much more than a place to play ball.
First off, it’s not a 9 to 5 job. The schedule is four straight games, followed by one day off, and the hours are brutal if you enjoy watching television. Kela is required to be at the ballpark at 1 p.m. and often gets home at 11 p.m.
The long day includes weightlifting, stretching and running, and getting nutrition intake. There’s also classroom time with coaches turning into teachers, instructing the rookies on such details as etiquette to game situations, essentially covering the bases in all things baseball — on and off the field.
“It’s a good experience. We practice and have a game at 7 p.m. Everything is very structured,” he said. “It keeps you on your toes. It makes you want to live, eat, and breathe baseball and everything about baseball.
“It’s a process with the coaches. They don’t want to change anything about you. They want to give you additives, especially your ability to be stronger mentally.”
Kela already has a good teacher in that department with his Grandpa George, who is battling cancer, multiple myeloma. He had a stem cell transplant in December 2010 and another in March, recently returning from Seattle for a checkup.
“My grandpa’s fight to overcome cancer has helped me out a lot,” Kela said. “He showed me how to stay strong, keep your eye on the prize and have a consistent work ethic, and strive for what you believe in. He’s been a big impact on me.”
The classroom is also a review board, breaking down video and finding the smallest detail to sharpen. It’s also a lot of situational programming — what if runners are on base, what might the hitter expect, and the solutions to each puzzle: training the mind to focus and handle the task at hand.
It’s a refresher course for Kela, who saw Texas select seven pitchers ahead of him, the highest being first-round supplemental pick Joey Gallo, from Las Vegas, who signed for $1.3 million. Under new MLB rules, any signing bonus after the 10th round exceeding $100,000 comes with a penalty tax.
“I’ve been playing good baseball since I was a little kid. My coaches have always taught me to think ahead,” Kela said. “That’s from everybody in my family, telling me to think before you speak or do something. That applies to everything in life, especially baseball because it’s my life.
“I showed up a month late because I spent time with my grandparents. (The coaches) pull everybody to the side and take three weeks to break you down and critique you. They want to see what you have. Everything is mental, how you act on the field, off the field. They want to see you take something and retain it, and see your work ethic.”
Kela has been in two games, pitching 2 1/3 innings. He’s allowed no hits, one walk, and whiffed three. His fastball was clocked in the 94- to 97-mph range, rather unusual velocity for someone not filling the prototypical pitcher’s frame.
“I get that from my legs and genes,” said Kela, who also throws a changeup and slider. “My father played baseball growing up and my grandpa was a star running back at Hilo High back in the day. All my cousins are playing football. I was born into an athletic family.
“The competition is the best of the best with the rawest, most talented kids. It ranges from boys out of high school to some ranging from freshmen in college to seniors. We’ve got everyone from around the country and world, from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico.”
The AZL season finishes Aug. 29. Until then, Kela has work to do. After that, he can think about visiting Hilo — where in his heart it’s a place that will always be home.
“I’m looking forward to coming back. I want to come back in the offseason and visit my grandfather,” he said. “I want to take some time off and regroup and relax. I’m planning on coming back and seeing everyone and greeting everyone with hello.”
Kela really meant aloha instead of hello. But he was still working, following Rangers policy — that is, until he comes back home.