Age has not quelled the competitive fires that burn within the members of the Hawaii Kupuna Softball League.
That was evident on Thursday, when the championship game of the Hawaii County Softball Tournament, which is for players 55 and older, ended on a controversial call.
The Honomu Rockets beat defending state champion Kona Gold 9-8 for the title. Kona, which went undefeated during the regular season, lost twice in two days to the Rockets. The Gold had the potential tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday when a ground-ball out and a baserunner interference call ended the game on a double play.
With Bobby Dudley on second base and Bob Fitzgerald on first, batter Wayne Burger hit a grounder to the left side. Honomu shortstop Wardell Lancaster made a diving stop in the hole and tossed to third baseman Joey Estrella at third to force out Dudley, who appeared to grab the Honomu player as he ran past him.
After a brief discussion, the umpiring crew ruled that Dudley interfered with Estrella. The interference call resulted in the final out of the game in a way that neither team wanted to see it end.
“It’s so bad it ended up that way,” Honomu coach Herbert Leite said. “The runner was going into where Joey was trying to touch third and he was going to try to throw to second when it was called interference. It wasn’t our call, it was the umpire who was right on the play. He made the call.
Fitzgerald, who is Kona’s coach, was frustrated because he was almost to second base when the out at third was recorded, meaning that a double play would have been unlikely.
“It’s a tough way to lose by a double play on an umpire’s call when there was no chance for a double play,” he said.
Billy DeMello, Honomu’s 81-year-old pitcher, picked up the victory, which he said was very special.
“It’s everything, because we beat a good, good team,” DeMello said. “I can’t say enough about the Kona Gold. I think they’re the best in the league and we got lucky. That’s about it. We got lucky.”
DeMello credited his defense, which was very solid until making two uncharacteristic errors in the final inning, for the victory.
“The defense was the key,” he said. “That’s what we did all year. We play good defense, stick around and every once in a while we steal a good game.”
The championship certainly qualified as a good game. It was close throughout, with Honomu grabbing a 2-0 lead in the top of the first only to see Kona cut it in half before the second inning. The Rockets scored four runs in the top of the third only to see the Gold score four of their own in the bottom half of the inning.
After Honomu scored a run in the top of the fifth, Kona scored two in the bottom half of the inning to tie the game at 7.
DeMello gave the Rockets the lead again in the sixth with an RBI single.
“That’s another lucky thing,” he said. “That’s why I bat last. I can’t hit the ball as good as I used to. I just try to put it in play and, if I get lucky, it falls in.”
Kona was unable to answer in the bottom of the sixth, and Lancaster ripped a ball down the left-field line for an inside-the-park home run in the top of the seventh for an insurance run that proved to be critical. Lancaster also had a two-run single in the first.
DeMello retired the first hitter in the bottom of the seventh before giving up a base hit. Lancaster bobbled a possible double-play ball and Ronald Takeya was unable to catch Fitzgerald’s fly ball to right, which allowed a run to score.
“It scared me a lot when there were errors — hard errors — that I thought were going to be in trouble again,” Leite said.
Despite keeping it close, Kona could never take the lead in the game.
“We were in good position,” Fitzgerald said. “We just needed one hit there and we win the game.”
Both teams plan to travel to Maui for the state tournament, which will be played Aug. 5-7.
Fitzgerald said he is “looking forward to getting a rematch with them in the states. That’s our next goal. We’re the defending state champs. We’re going to Maui to win it again.”
Leite would be just fine seeing Kona in Maui with the title on the line.
“We hope that we end up where we play them again for the championship in Maui,” he said.