By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Hawaii Stars are back for their second year of independent professional baseball in a new league with a few fresh local faces to kick off their home opener, set for May 28 at Wong Stadium.
Onan Masaoka, a 1995 Waiakea graduate, headlines the list of locals, including newcomer Dane Sardinha, a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, as well as returnees Reece Alnas, Cortney Arruda, John Holley Jr., Michael Kenui, and Ronnie Loeffler.
The Stars will play in the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, after debuting in the North American Baseball League, which folded due to financial reasons. The league members will be the same as last year: Na Koa Ikaika Maui, San Rafael Pacifics and Vallejo Admirals (formerly the Sonoma County Grapes).
Unlike last time when it was a merry-go-around of playing the same three opponents over and over and over, there’s a little diversity this season, which features 78 games, including 34 at home. Hawaii opens with the Shinano Grandserows, a semi-pro team in the Baseball Challenge League of Japan.
No word if the next Ichiro Suzuki is currently stationed on Shinano’s roster. Ichiro was on the Hilo Stars when the Hawaii Winter Baseball League held its 1993 inaugural season. The next year, he was promoted to the big leagues with the Orix Blue Wave and set the Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League on fire, hitting .385 to win the batting title.
Following the Grandserows, the Stars will host the Ishikawa Million Stars, another team from the BCL. There also may not be a next Ichiro on the roster, but at least there’s one familiar name in Roman Martinez, Hawaii’s closer last season.
Hawaii and Maui players will need to update their passports because both ballclubs will travel to Japan to play all six teams in the BCL. The traveling fun doesn’t stop there. The Stars will venture to Arizona to play the Freedom League’s Phoenix Prospectors and the Prescott Federals before entering the league playoffs.
“This winter was all about new beginnings, never done before in organized baseball, and our schedule is a testament to that,” chief operating officer David Andrus said in a statement. “I am excited for our loyal fans in Hawaii and Maui as we embrace these new opportunities of minor league baseball with Hawaii right in the heart of it.”
Hopefully, the players also have frequent flier cards because the Stars will take to the sky quite often. The road schedule looks like this: one trip to Maui, one to San Rafael, Calif., back to Maui, then to Japan, return to Maui, then finally off to Arizona.
Air fare alone costs a lot of money. Then there’s hotel accommodations, transportation and other sticker prices that add up. Andrus, in charge of holding the team’s wallet, couldn’t be reached for comment.
The best revenue streams for teams are gate and corporate sponsorship. Hawaii assistant general manager Karen Chaves put last season’s average attendance around 150 to 200 people, about the same size as the UH-Hilo Vulcans.
“Hopefully, the attendance is a lot better than last year,” she said. “We have a lot of promotions and are talking to sponsors. We’re trying to get in new groups. Ticket sales have been slow. We hardly did any advertising. We’ve got an ad in the paper (today) and Wednesday. Hopefully, it’ll pick up.
“Last year, a lot of people got in free. We just wanted to get them into the stadium. This year I think we’ll be a pretty good team with the addition of the two new guys. Onan and Dane will help us immensely with the local crowd.”
The Stars, who will be managed again by Garry Templeton II, are holding spring training on Maui. Last year, the Stars finished with a 25-29 record. The Pacifics won the North division title of the now defunct NABL.
Masaoka, a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, pitched in the big leagues in 1999 and 2000. His last pro ball was 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’s been pitching in AJA ball and he’s been working out and getting there,” Chaves said of the 35-year-old left-hander. “He said he wouldn’t come out if he wasn’t in shape. He sounds excited.”
The Stars are hoping that feeling among the local folks becomes contagious.
“It would be really nice if we got over 500 fans, especially with our first homestand against the Japanese teams,” Chaves said. “Onan will be a good draw. Hopefully, he can start against one of the Japanese teams.”
Star notes: The team does not have a radio deal in place. However, live stats will be available on pointstreak.com.
Former Stars Keoni Manago and Jenzen Torres are playing for the Normal CornBelters in the Frontier League, based in Iowa. The team averaged 2,557 fans last year.
In Baseball America’s ranking of the top 20 prospects in Independent Leagues for the 2012 season, four players were from the Frontier League. That means it wasn’t only a higher caliber of competition, but also more likely that Major League Baseball scouts caught games.