Help from above
By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
In the best shape of his life, Kolten Wong heads to spring training in about a month, penciled in as the starting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.
He changed his diet, eating healthier, and weighs 185 pounds, looking less muscular than his 197 pounds when he was at the University of Hawaii in 2011.
Since then it’s been a rapid rise for Wong, who not only was called up in August this past season but also was added to the playoffs and World Series rosters.
“It was up and down. I had good and bad moments,” said Wong, who batted .153 in 59 at-bats and was 1 of 6 in the postseason. “I have to learn from it. I won’t be satisfied until I’m out of this game.”
One phone call he’ll always remember was to his family before he was called up on Aug. 15. His mom, Keala Wong, answered. It was early in the morning.
“It was 5 a.m. and she said, ‘Why are you calling this early?’ I said, ‘Where’s dad? Get your bags ready.’ Everyone was crying when I called her,” Wong said. “All the hard work paid off. My family was there the whole time in the postseason. They saw me get the hit against the Boston Red Sox. It was good that they could soak it all in.”
His mother passed away from a four-year battle with cancer on Dec. 19. Keala Wong was 47. She leaves behind her husband Kaha Wong and three children — Kolten, Kiani and Kean — all successful in their own right.
“She was always the one with me, the one I would call when times got tough,” said Kolten, a 2008 Kamehameha graduate said. “Now, I’m doing this for her to keep it going. Anybody who played with me or against me knew she was the loudest on the field, always cheering. She’s the one who would keep me even-keeled, relaxed, not getting too high or too low.
“She had a love for her kids and always wanted us to be successful. She’s a big part of it. That support is the biggest thing. She was always there for us. My favorite memory is growing up and her being my No. 1 fan, and having her there at all times.”
After the season finished, Wong returned home in mid-November and took nearly a month off, spending time with his mom. He also introduced healthy cooking to his family.
“It was perfect timing. I got to hang out with my mom more,” he said. “I still lift but I eat super healthy. It’s helped my game. I feel it in my game and I can tell the difference in my life. It’s like a car. You put good gas in to make it run better. Your body is like a car. You put in the best gas and it’ll last longer.
“I work the hardest I can. I know I’m not the most talented or gifted player in the world. But I’ll give it everything I can to hang with those guys. They’re all bigger, faster and stronger. But the thing that helps me is I want to make it more than that other guy.”
Unlike his brother, who was a first-round pick out of UH, Kean Wong was drafted out of Waiakea High in the fourth round by the Tampa Bays Rays and assigned to a rookie league.
“I told myself I wouldn’t bat under .300, and I haven’t yet,” said Kean, who hit .328 in 177 at-bats. “Rookie league is good competition. That’s where all the top picks go and the guys who couldn’t make (colleges). The pitchers are throwing over 90 mph, some guys at 97 mph. The hardest was a left-hander who threw 98 mph. I went 1 for 3 off him and got a hit.”
It’s a long climb up the minor league ladder for the Rays second-base prospect. Spring training will determine where Kean lands. Tampa Bay has a short-season A-ball club, a single-A and an advanced-A team. There’s only one double-A and triple-A farm club.
His older brother understands the cutthroat nature of the business.
“I know he works out nonstop and I know how good he can play,” Kolten said. “I’m not surprised what he can do. You have to understand that it’s your job and you have to constantly produce. That’s the only way you move up the chain.
“A lot of guys in their first year don’t make it to their second year. I’ve seen guys get released in spring training.”
Like his brother, the memory of their mom will always be on Kean’s mind.
“I’m playing for her,” Kean said. “I have to work hard to make it to the major leagues. She’ll be watching that first game from up there, seeing that I made it.”
Last season, the Rainbow Wahine softball team finished 45-13 and lost to Washington in the NCAA regionals. Then the team lost several key starters to graduation, including center fielder Kelly Majam.
Kiani Wong, a 2012 Kamehameha graduate, has a shot at filling that job. Last year, Kiani didn’t get a hit in 10 at-bats, mostly being used as a pinch runner. She had three steals in four attempts for UH, which starts its season Feb. 6.
“It feels good to show what I have and the coaches giving me a chance,” she said. “They teach a totally different swing. It’s to reach for the fences all the time. The swing is super long. Because I was the fastest on the team, I played center field, behind Kelly last year. It was a learning experience.
“You mindset has to be stronger. You can’t get frazzled. It’s not BIIFs. You have to step up, especially with Kelly and Jessica Iwata not being here.”
Like her brothers, their mom’s fighting spirit carries her.
“We all gained a tremendous amount of strength seeing what she went through,” Kiani said. “She had a four-year battle with cancer. We have to keep going on. I know that’s what she would always want.
“That’s how to keep her in memory. She kept fighting every day. That’s exactly what she did.”
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