Memorial Day is the unofficial start of the summer season, and it also means baseball diamonds around the island are going to be getting a bit more populated, starting this weekend, as teams from around the state converge on Old Kona Airport Park for the 15th annual PONY Baseball Memorial Day Tournament.
The action starts Saturday and runs through Monday.
“It is a great time for baseball in Kona,” tournament director Randy Morris said. “This tournament has a great tradition. We have a great venue in Kona and it’s great to see all the new kids and parents coming to town enjoying healthy competition and making new friends.”
The Pony (ages 13-14), Bronco (11-12) and Mustang (9-10) teams will compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in competitive bracket play.
The younger Pinto (7-8) squads will play a “goodwill” format that helps promote healthy competition.
This year also marks the debut of the Pony Division at the annual holiday tournament. Six squads will compete for the title, bumping the number of teams in the tournament to 54.
All the Pony games will be played at Simmons field at Old Kona Airport Park.
“People have asked for the division in the past, so we decided to include it this year,” Morris said. “Kids love coming to the tournament, but when they reached the Bronco Division they would be bummed out that it was their last time coming to Kona.
When you get to that age group, kids start to drop off and decide whether if they are really ball players are not. This helps peak the interest and keep kids playing the sport.”
The division was slated for eight teams, but coincides with the inaugural Big Island Baseball Memorial Day Tournament — an eight-team tourney for ages 13-15 at Hilo’s Wong Stadium.
In the Bronco Division, Hilo’s Andrews Braves are expected to be the team to beat. The club is the defending division champion and has won three of the last four years — the first two in the Mustang division.
The tournament has called Kona home for over two decades, but this year marks the 15th anniversary of PONY Baseball hosting the event. That consistency has made it a premier event for many teams around the state and has brought generations of players to West Hawaii.
“A lot of the coaches that will be out here this weekend played in this tournament,” Morris said.
The tournament has a long roster of notable Big Island athletes who have competed, including Seattle Seahawks center and Super Bowl champion Max Unger, and Pepperdine’s Kolten Yamaguchi, who was a first-team All-West Coast Conference selection at catcher this season.
Kona teams have not had a tradition of winning the tournament, but JJ Kitaoka and Ryan Torres-Torioka — 2013 Konawaena graduates who now play their college ball at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University, respectively — were catalysts on the Kona Centrals Bronco, the only hometown team to ever win the tournament.
The well-known Wong brothers, Kolten and Kean, who now both receive paychecks from MLB clubs, have storied histories in the tournament as well, specifically the home run derby.
More than a decade ago, crowds watched in awe as Kolten crushed more than 20 home runs in a five-minute span to win the derby title and set the tournament record. A few years later, little brother Kean broke his older sibling’s record to put his name etched into the tournament’s record book. Their performances are part of tournament lore and have brought a spotlight to the derby.
“The kids have a good time with it,” Morris said. “I think we are known for. The kids are up to bat and we are naming off their favorite MLB players and people they would like to thank over the speakers. It’s always a good time.”
This year’s Bronco derby will be on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., the young Pinto’s swing their bats Sunday at 4:30 p.m. and the Mustangs at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.