By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Onan Masaoka didn’t have his best stuff in his pitching debut for the Hawaii Stars on an overcast Tuesday night, fighting hard on each of his 90 pitches to summon the fastball command that once made him such a dominant force.
Masaoka lasted only three innings in the 5-3 home-opening loss to the Shinano Grandserows, a semi-pro Japanese team in the Baseball Challenge League, at Wong Stadium, where the rain waited patiently until the game was over to let loose with a downpour.
He allowed four runs, one unearned, on two hits, six walks, and hit three batters. Masaoka never looked comfortable on the mound, even when he produced three strikeouts.
“Basically, my rhythm wasn’t there,” he said. “I’m hoping to do better next time. I’m definitely enjoying the game and being at home. It’s like pitching for the Hilo Stars back in the day in 1995 and ’97.”
Masaoka is a 1995 Waiakea graduate, who was armed with a 94-mph fastball that made him a third-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. He pitched in the big leagues in 1999 and 2000.
The following year he was traded in July by the Dodgers with Jeff Barry and Gary Majewski to the Chicago White for James Baldwin and cash. He reached Triple-A and pitched 45 games combined for the Dodgers and White Sox farm teams, then retired after the 2011 season at age 23.
“I wasn’t enjoying the game and I have no regrets that I stopped,” he said.
He was out of baseball for seven years and made a comeback in 2009 for the Gary SouthShore Railcats of the independent Northern League. He went 1-5 with a 6.02 ERA in 55 1/3 innings. He was 31 years old at the time.
In 2011, Masaoka picked up the ball and started pitching in the AJA league, partnering with Hawaii Stars teammate Cortney Arruda to lead the Big Isle to the state championship against Oahu.
Hawaii lost that game, but Masaoka found something again.
“My goal is to first help the team and in the process help other guys out to make it to a higher level and go from there,” he said. “The team and Gary (Templeton II, the Stars manager) gave me a chance. I want to prove to them I can help the team. I’m still able to throw at 35 years old and throw with no pain in my arm. That’s something I’m proud of.”
Masaoka knows all too well that it’s a meat grinder trying to reach the big leagues. There’s a fresh crop of talent every year with the annual draft. Teams stick prospects on farm teams and let the better ones weed out the less productive players.
And sometimes that process can be shockingly cruel, even if someone puts up pretty good numbers.
Brooks Belter, who got the win for Shinano, is a good example how short the life can be climbing the minor-league ladder of Major League Baseball.
He was drafted in the 25th round out of Occidental (Los Angeles) College by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. He had a decent year at Single-A ball, with a 3-2 record and a 3.58 ERA in 15 games. The next season he was pitching for the Traverse City Beach Bums of the independent Frontier League.
Now, the 25-year-old right-hander is one of four gaijin (foreigner) on the semi-pro team in Japan’s Baseball Challenge League, not exactly the best place in the world to be seen by major league scouts.
At least the Shinano players get to visit Hilo and Maui as part of their grand Hawaii tour. And Belter will have a daily crash course in learning how to speak Japanese, useful when he heads out to restaurants in Shinano, an old province of Japan that is present day Nagano Prefecture, where most people don’t speak English.
The serow is a goat-antelope found in Honshu, Japan, and eats leaves and acorns. If you attach the prefix “Grand” to serow, that nickname becomes a powerful pitching force, chews up Hawaii Stars and spits them out as strikeout victims. The Stars whiffed 15 times.
Against the Hawaii Stars in front of a Wong Stadium crowd of about 150 fans, Belter went six innings and struck out 12 and allowed three runs on four hits and six walks for the win, overshadowing Masaoka.
Shinano 002 200 100 — 5 5 2
Hawaii 000 300 000 — 3 8 2