WHERE’S THE LOVE FOR BASEBALL?

WHERE’S THE LOVE FOR BASEBALL?

📅05 August 2013
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By Patrick Lujan

COMMENTARY – One of my fondest memories of Guam baseball is when John Farnum hit a home run into the dark skies of Paseo that I’m sure sailed over Lady Liberty’s head and is probably still in flight as we speak.

Those were the days when Paseo Stadium would be packed with thousands of fans, some had to watch and dangle their legs from the outfield wall and be told by the public address announcer to get down.

Baseball is America’s Past Time and was huge back in the 1980’s and 90’s on our island. The AK Islanders were the cream of the crop and kids like me wanted Big John’s autograph. I thought I was special because I was related to him through his wife on the Quenga side.

When Richard Martinez gained his nickname ‘Son of Slam’ with the UOG Tritons in 1983, I got a signed Guam Major League ball from him after that heroic game and I ended up showing it off to my friends at school the next day. They had cool nicknames like AK third baseman Roque ‘The Human Vacuum Cleaner’ Alcantara and Agana Heights Cougars shortstop Franklin ‘Spider’ Ninete.

The Phillies watch from their dugout at Paseo Stadium as Da Braves celebrate their fifth straight BBL title. Championship games used to pack the stadium. An average of only 200-300 fans showed up for the BBL championship series. (photo by Jesse Castro)

The Phillies watch from their dugout at Paseo Stadium as Da Braves celebrate their fifth straight BBL title. Championship games used to pack the stadium. An average of only 200-300 fans showed up for the BBL championship series. (photo by Jesse Castro)

 

Then the days of the Exxon Tigers came around with Peter Aguon and Tommy Duenas, playing against the Tritons’ Martinez, John Hattig, Sr, Randy Kakigi, Willie Long and Willie Brennan. Some real good baseball. Hattig, Sr. once fielded a ball off the left field wall, turned and threw the runner out at second base – UNDERHAND. Fans were still coming out to the stadium. And if you couldn’t make it down for some Cougar Burgers, you can listen live to Dennis Zermeno on K57. He always had a weird way of pronouncing ‘Aguon’.

The 1990’s rolled in and the old Tritons turned into the Continental Golden Jets while the young UOG Tritons took the league by storm. Jimmy Reyes, Dominic Cruz, Joe Tuquero,Kin Fernandez – all college students who played hard and showed the veterans that the new wave of players were going to take over.

Keith Hattig made history by being the first professional from Guam, playing in the California Angels farm system. GML by the Bay was released by Danny Orlino with Keith being on the cover. ‘Keefer’ is the best baseball player I’ve seen play on Guam. The Pepsi Giants were a force along with the young Tritons. Fans were still coming out in droves – minus the wall climbers. You knew you were at a GML game when fans broke out their sweaters when the temperature dipped into the upper 70’s.

The momentum continued into the 2000’s. Some of our young players were starting to play college ball in the states (Alan Sarmiento, Henry Santos and BJ Balajadia were the first). Our national program was being developed and we actually competed and held our ground against the likes of Australia. JR Hattig followed his uncle’s footsteps into professional ball and made more history for his family and the island by becoming the first ever Guam player to make it to the major league level with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Meanwhile, more sports and activities were being made available on Guam. Rugby started making its way in from New Zealand. MMA was starting to sneak its tough head into the scene. Soccer was building. Jiu-jitsu wasn’t even around yet.

Other sports were gaining ground and baseball stood still and seems that it even went backward. The other two big sports (football and basketball) continued to be popular and sustainable.

In recent years, the attendance at BBL games has been poor despite the cheap $2 tickets. There’s more fans at masters games than BBL. Even Atkins Kroll, a long-time supporter of the league, pulled the Islanders out after three decades. Da Braves are Da Braves for a reason. No sponsor for the best team in the league.

We used to dominate our Pacific region in baseball. It wasn’t even close. Now we’re losing regularly to our brothers from Saipan and our neighbors from Palau. They always had good teams, but we were kings of baseball. Not anymore.

If those are not signs, I don’t know what are.

“”It seemed a whole lot different,” Keith Hattig said about the difference between the 1980’s-90’s and the recent years. “I even talked to some players that are still in the BBL and they say its not the same.” Hattig, who at age 44 and is still better than almost all the BBL has to offer, chooses to play only in the masters leagues.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

I believe it’s a number of things at different levels.

1) The developmental phase – youth baseball – is divided.  Having both Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken leagues are fine. But when it comes to representing Guam, the teams are too diluted. We’re already short in the talent pool with a small population. Take the best of the entire island, not north or south or central. Take the best boys and show the world what we got.

2) Adult baseball is divided. The Bennett Family has come in and has done a great job developing the amateur baseball league and opening their batting cage in Harmon. Getting that agreement with Leo Palace to use their fields was a home run. But having two masters leagues going on at the same time? Hmmm. The BBL Championship Series didn’t feel any special. From a GSPN perspective, the FD Alumni Basketball championship game had two to three times more hits online than the BBL Game 1 story. The men’s basketball team preview going to the East Asian Games generated three times more hits than the Game 5 Series clinching story. That’s a huge statement.

3) The baseball gem of the Western Pacific – Paseo Stadium – is in shambles (see GSPN Bleacher Story here). The public-private agreement with the Guam Baseball Federation a decade ago seemed to be a perfect marriage, but the Superior Court of Guam deemed that the GBF breached the agreement and gave the responsibilities of the stadium back to the government. We know how the government’s priorities have shifted over the years – Parks & Recreation is not top priority. Health, Safety and Education are and will always be any government’s priorities. Can the government do more? We ALL can do more.

4) The younger talent can’t beat the older guys yet. Game 5 of the BBL Championship Series starter Joe Quintanilla was the Player of the Game. How old is he, 50?

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Let’s see if we can offer some solutions.

Da Braves fans celebrate their fifth straight championship after Game 5, but the rest of the season is pretty quiet. How does baseball fix this? (photo by Jesse Castro)

Da Braves fans celebrate their fifth straight championship after Game 5, but the rest of the season is pretty quiet. How does baseball fix this? (photo by Jesse Castro)

1) First off, the blueprint has been in place for all levels of baseball to be under a single umbrella. Now all levels need to support that. The Guam Baseball Federation lost credibility years ago and it hasn’t regained that respect even from the players themselves. It’s time for some shuffling.

2) In baseball and other sports federations, there should be term limits for the top positions – even for Olympic Committees. Keeping fresh ideas and highly motivated leaders will only move federations forward.

3) Go back to the Guam Major League. GML sounds so much better than BBL or any other sponsor-named league. Call it (sponsor) Presents the Guam Major League. Bring back the GML balls. Bring back the Cougar Burger and Little League Nights where the kids come in free with their uniforms. Bring back the metal bats. Stuff like that.

4) Raise the price. Go ahead. $2? But make the product on the field worth it. I know money has a lot to do with it, but like Apple’s Steve Jobs’ motto: focus on the quality of the product and not the money. The quality of the product will bring in the money.

5) Speed up the games. I know there are people who would love to watch baseball, but when it ends past 11 p.m. on a week night….definitely past many people’s bedtimes.

6) Fix Paseo Stadium. In fact, fix and complete the Harmon fields. Those never even opened up.  “I wish and dream someone from our island would invest in having a facility like they have for soccer,” Keefer added. ” If baseball had that  kind of facility we would be developing more pro baseball players from our island.”

7) Set goals. Do we want to be successful in international play? Do we want to prepare players for college scholarships? If the current goal is just to play baseball, then we don’t have a problem.

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There’s hundreds of other perspectives on this topic and baseball is not the only sport facing some big issues. I hear the word ‘politics’ passed out from every sport on island like political flyers. I don’t think that will ever change because of the mere fact that some people interpret different ideas and disagreements as ‘politics’.

This is by no means an attack on anyone or any baseball organization. It is simply an observation with hopes of seeing a struggling sport get  back on its feet to the level of respectability it held once before.

Here at GSPN, we track the popularity of sports by the attention they receive. Baseball is looking for some love.

Congratulations to Da Braves. An unprecedented fifth straight BBL title with a bunch of home runs flying out of Paseo Stadium during the championship series. Too bad it doesn’t really matter to many sports fans anymore.

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