The first player from “The Big Island” of Hawaii to make it to the major leagues was pitcher Onan Masaoka. The lefty’s 1999 Bowman baseball card aptly described his ability and his nemesis, command: “Pure power southpaw . . . Lively low-to-mid 90s heater . . . Gets outs with breaking stuff, too, when mechanics in order.” Masaoka relieved in 83 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999 and 2000 before retiring at the age of 24 in 2002. He eventually came back for the 2009 season in the independent Northern League.
Onan Kainoa Satoshi Masaoka was born in Hilo, the seat of Hawaii County, on October 27, 1977. He is of Yonsei heritage (the great-grandchildren of Japanese immigrants), although he also has Chinese, Portuguese, and Hawaiian ancestry.i His father, Milton Masaoka, worked with the Board of Water Supply. His mother, Elizabeth, was a custodian at Kalanianaole Elementary School.ii
Hawaii has enjoyed a strong baseball culture since the 19th century, driven in large part by its Japanese population. Hilo was no exception. In his book Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball, author Joel Franks wrote, “In 1912, some Hilo residents complained that Nikkei on the island had transformed a local cemetery into a baseball diamond.”iii A study of Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) in Hawaii, From Bent? to Mixed Plate, described the scene around a decade or two later. “Competition in the prestigious Hilo Commercial League was so intense that companies often hired young men on the basis of their baseball talent. The Hilo Senior Baseball League was another highly competitive league.”iv As was true elsewhere in the islands, sugar plantations also fostered the sport.
The most advanced pro player from Hilo before Masaoka was Richard “Dick” DeSa, who pitched in Japan from 1961 to 1965. DeSa, which is a Portuguese surname, was also the maiden name of Onan Masaoka’s paternal grandmother.v As of 2011 there had been only one other big leaguer born on the Big Island, pitcher Brandon Villafuerte (91 games from 2000 to 2004). Yet while Villafuerte maintained ties to Hawaii, he moved to California at the age of 7.vi Thus, Masaoka’s background remains unique – at least as of 2011. Infielder Brandon Chaves, a Hilo High grad like Dick DeSa, made it as high as Triple-A in 2009. Another Hilo infielder, Kolten Wong, became the first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.
Masaoka looked up to his father as an example of diligence. The same was true of his older brother, Eldon, who went from being a backup linebacker in high school to an all-star in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation and then to college football. In 2003, Onan said, “I learned from Eldon that nothing is impossible, if you focus and work hard.”vii
Masaoka went to Waiakea High School, where he played football (which he followed more closely growing up) and baseball (he was a Braves fan).viii He said that he wasn’t the smartest or the dumbest guy in his class, but he maintained passing grades (a 2.8 GPA) to play sports. His parents wanted him to do better in school, so they would ask for a progress report every Friday. Many people helped him throughout his career, but in addition to his family, he gave credit to two men in particular for their support. Stanley Costales, Sr., who played minor-league ball in 1951, was a leading figure on the Hilo sporting scene for many years. Tommy Correa was Masaoka’s coach at Waiakea High.ix
One highlight of Masaoka’s scholastic career came during the summer of 1994 at the Area Code Baseball Games, a showcase for scouts in Long Beach, California. At least three other future big leaguers, Chad Hermansen, Ben Davis, and Eric Valent, were there – but USA Today wrote that the “unheralded” and “previously little-known pitcher” stole the show.x Baseball America rated him as the second-best draft prospect in the Pacific Rim region, which includes Hawaii, Alaska, and the neighboring territories.xi
Masaoka had intended to go to the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship, but when the Los Angeles Dodgers made him a third-round pick in the June 1995 amateur draft, four days later he signed. The scout was a venerable baseball figure from Maui named Ichiro “Iron” Maehara. Maehara was then in his mid-80s; previously he had discovered Sid Fernandez for the Dodgers in the 1980s. One of his last recommendations before he died in 1998 was Shane Victorino.
Over the next four years, Masaoka climbed steadily from the Northwest League (short-season Class A) to the Texas League (Double-A). He impressed the organization and outside observers with his strikeout ability. As the Greensboro News & Record previewed the 1996 season in the South Atlantic League, it said, “[Savannah] Manager John Shoemaker’s top player is pitcher Onan Masaoka.”xii A couple of weeks later, Shoemaker said, “He’s young – 18 years old – and he’s got a really good arm.”xiii During his first two seasons in the minors, the southpaw whiffed 155 batters in 114 1/3 innings. He also walked 82, though, which partly explains why his won-lost records and ERAs (4-9, 4.01 overall) were undistinguished. He also had little besides a fastball at that point.
At Vero Beach in 1997, Masaoka’s record was so-so on the surface (6-8, 3.87), but Charlie Blaney, the Dodgers’ vice president for minor-league operations, said, “He’s an excellent worker. He’s grown into a man.” Onan himself said, “Just being healthy all season was the biggest difference. It gave me a chance to work on my stuff.” His top performances were a one-hitter and a two-hitter. That August, the Dodgers put the prospect on their roster for the Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown, and Masaoka got the win in relief. “He got a sniff of what it’s like to be in the big leagues and I think he wants more,” said Blaney.xiv
Another highlight of the Hawaiian’s minor-league career was playing at home during the winters. He was with his hometown Hilo Stars of the Hawaii Winter League for three seasons from 1995 through 1997. This circuit folded after the 1997 season, though it re-emerged for three years from 2006 to 2008. In 1997 Onan won the league’s Public Service Award for community and charitable work.
Masaoka’s 1998 Bowman baseball card again summed up the pitcher’s promise: “The stuff to be unhittable at times . . . Has a good fastball made to look overpowering when he counters it with superb changeup . . . Also throws a curveball.” He was mainly a starting pitcher in the minors, but he lost endurance after missing a month in 1998 with tendinitis in his left shoulder.xv In July 1998 the San Antonio Express-News wrote, “San Antonio’s most-talented pitcher, Onan Masaoka, is still recovering from the mystery shoulder ailment that kept him out almost all of June.”xvi He finished at 6-6, 5.32, walking 63 men in 110 innings, though he still struck out 94.
In spring training 1999 the Dodgers looked at the 21-year-old as a reliever. Manager Davey Johnson said, “For Masaoka, that part of the game could be a possible role for him. I wanted to see how he takes to situations. So far he’s scored well. He’s passed some tests.”xvii In fact, he won the Jim and Dearie Mulvey Award, given to the Dodgers’ top rookie during camp. He impressed general manager Kevin Malone and pitching coach Charlie Hough as well as Johnson. He also benefited from some advice from a great Dodger southpaw of the past: Sandy Koufax. Onan said, “I’ve seen him around before. He pops in every now and then. He was showing me a different way to hold my four-seam fastball today. It’s nice to know you’re learning from someone who knows what he’s doing.”xviii
Masaoka beat out veteran Greg Cadaret for a spot in the LA bullpen, jumping over Triple-A to the majors. Among the congratulations, he received a lei from an aunt in Hawaii.xix He made his debut on April 5, Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, and later told Japanese-American baseball historian Kerry Yo Nakagawa (whose grandfather played on plantations in Hilo) about the experience. “When they announced my name, I had what Hawaiians call ‘chicken skin’ running out to the mound. It was incredible seeing fifty thousand fans out there cheering you on.”xx He pitched a scoreless eighth inning as the Dodgers came back to win in the 11th.
During the regular season Davey Johnson used the rookie in 54 games, mainly as a situational/setup man. “It was kind of whenever,” Masaoka told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin after the season. “That was the thing. I never knew when I was going in. I just had to be ready at any time.”xxi The lefty was 2-4 with a 4.32 ERA. As in the minors, he struck out an impressive 61 batters in 66 2/3 innings, but he was still wild, walking 47. In addition, he allowed eight homers. Onan’s only save in the majors came in an interleague game on July 11 at Dodger Stadium, as he went the last four innings of a 14-3 blowout over the Seattle Mariners.
Of his rookie season, Masaoka said, “I think it was a lot more exciting. I wanted to be there. I had fun and learned a lot about the different hitters. That was amazing. It’s mostly in my head. I know what they did when I went out the last time. I’m not saying that I won’t throw the same pitch the next time, but I might throw it in a different spot.” He credited fellow Dodger pitchers and catcher Todd Hundley with helping him deal with new situations and offering advice on batters he hadn’t faced before.xxii
After the season Onan went to the Arizona Fall League. The Dodgers had wanted him to pitch winter ball in Venezuela, but he declined.xxiii He started the 2000 season in LA again as the only lefty in the Dodgers bullpen. However, he bounced up and down between the big club and Triple-A Albuquerque over the course of the season. In 29 games he pitched 27 innings, again striking out a batter per inning, but walking 15. At Albuquerque, his role became blurry, as he started five times in 18 games. On the surface his record was decent (3-1, 3.86), but his ratio of strikeouts to walks deteriorated (36 BB’s and 22 K’s in 37 1/3 innings).
Masaoka started 2001 with Las Vegas, which had become the new top Dodger affiliate. He was 8-4 in 31 games, though his ERA was a lofty 5.55. In spring training that year, however, the Dodgers decided to reconvert him to a starter. In that role, he was 1-3, 11.63 in five rocky outings before he went back to the pen, where he had become much more comfortable after two years.xxiv There he righted himself and awaited a call from the big club that never came. On July 26 the Dodgers, who needed starting pitching, traded him with outfielder Jeff Barry and pitcher Gary Majewski to the Chicago White Sox for pitcher James Baldwin and cash. Onan finished the season with Triple-A Charlotte in the International League, going 0-1, 4.30 in 14 games.
The White Sox released Masaoka in mid-March 2002, and he walked away from the game. He told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “I knew I was kind of burnt out. I didn’t want to end my career in a bad way. Baseball had always been fun, enjoyable and that feeling wasn’t there any more. Pitching was always natural for me and it was natural to compete. But, when I was in a game, on the mound, the adrenaline wasn’t really there. I wasn’t competing up to my standards and I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”xxv
Reportedly the Boston Red Sox and several Japanese teams were still interested, but what started as a one-year sabbatical turned out to be a more extended hiatus. Talking with the Honolulu Advertiser in 2007, Masaoka echoed his feelings from five years before. “When I look back, that’s why I had that little burnout at the end. I wasn’t having fun. To me, at that time in my life, not knowing anything else but baseball just coming out of high school, I didn’t really have the opportunity to experience the young life. It was right into a career right after high school. I missed a lot of those things.”xxvi
Onan went back to school, earning a business degree from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He preferred to blend in with the other students, saying, “I’m just a local boy.”xxvii He also was a volunteer pitching coach at the university, later working part-time at Kea’au High. In his leisure time, he enjoyed another distinctly Hawaiian athletic pursuit – outrigger canoe racing. Think of the closing credits of Hawaii Five-O (along with Sid Fernandez, Masaoka was one of the Hawaiian ballplayers who wore uniform number 50).
In 2007 the pitcher mulled a comeback. The transactions column in the newspapers reported that he had signed with the Texas Rangers, but there was no deal because of a miscommunication.xxviii On May 3 that year, Masaoka married Christy Chong, a schoolteacher.
In 2009, after seven years away from the mound, 31-year-old Masaoka finally did return to pro ball with the Gary South Shore RailCats of the Northern League. He and Christy had an infant daughter, and they were building a new house in Hilo, but he still felt the time was right. “I’m committed to getting back into baseball,” he said. “I do everything 100 percent, and that’s what I’m doing here.”xxix However, he went 1-5 with a 6.02 ERA while starting 11 times in 12 games. He was still able to strike out batters (51 in 55 1/3 innings) and had a few good outings, but overall he was hit hard, giving up 13 homers.
That winter another independent circuit, the Golden Baseball League, announced a new entry in Hawaii. Na Ikaika Koa Maui (the Strong Warriors of Maui) and their manager, former big-leaguer Cory Snyder, talked to a number of local players, including Masaoka.xxx He did not join the team when it began play in May 2010, though; instead he enjoyed recreational baseball with the Waiakea Pirates of the Hawaii AJA Memorial Baseball League. In April 2011 he pitched for the Big Island in the State AJA Baseball Tournament final. He was also conducting baseball camps for children.xxxi
Onan Masaoka has offered this advice to young people who want to make it as a professional athlete. In 2003 he said, “Do what you love doing and make your life feel worthwhile.”xxxii He also told the students of Waiakea High, “Do the things that nobody else wants to do: work hard, focus on the goal, make sacrifices, don’t sell yourself out, don’t be afraid to try new things, don’t take performance enhancement drugs, and follow your heart.”xxxiii
japanbaseballdaily.com/foreignpitchingd-j.html (Dick DeSa statistics)
i Takeno Chiyo, “Nikkei Fulfills Major League Dreams.” Nichi Bei Times, undated article from Rory Costello files, circa April 1999.
ii Raenette Marino, “Local Boy’s Trade: Baseball for Books.” Ke Kalahea (The University of Hawai’i at Hilo and Hawai’i Community College student newspaper), October 29, 2003, 5.
iii Joel S. Franks, Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2008), 51.
iv Karleen Chinen and Arnold T. Hiura, editors. From Bent? to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai’i. (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1997), 40.
v Dick DeSa’s son Rich pitched at Cornell University; his grandson Ty starred in the Little League World Series in 2010. Ty’s second cousin was Joe DeSa, the Honolulu-born first baseman who played in the majors in 1980 and 1985. Brendan Sagara, “Yuma gets worse by the minute,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, August 29, 2010.
vi Mark Gonzales, “5 Questions,” Arizona Republic, June 18, 2004, C7. Villafuerte was still active in the independent North American League as of 2011.
vii Marino, “Local Boy’s Trade.”
viii Dave Reardon, “Who’s that lefty?” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 1, 1999.
ix Sheldon Shishido, “Onan Masaoka.” Brief biographical sketch at Waiakea High School website (http://waiakeahigh.k12.hi.us/library/NaMea%20Pages/Onan%20Masaoka.htm).
x “Hawaii pitcher a ringing success,” USA Today, August 22, 1994.
xi “Dodgers Pick Seminole Left-hander Yocum in First Round,” Los Angeles Daily News, June 2, 1995. Who was rated ahead of Masaoka remains an open question.
xii Charlie Atkinson, “Charleston, Piedmont Class of Class A League,” Greensboro (North Carolina) News & Record, April 4, 1996, C4.
xiii Sammy Batten, “Savannah Reverses Fortunes Against Slumping Generals,” Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer, April 23, 1996.
xiv Al Chase, “Big Island’s Masaoka had his best year yet,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 24, 1997.
xv Dave Reardon, “Who’s that lefty?”
xvi David King, “Dodgers trade pair, ignore cold realities,” San Antonio Express-News, July 7, 1998.
xvii “Dodgers Like the Look of Lefty Masaoka,” Long Beach Press-Telegram, March 16, 1999.
xviii Dave Reardon, “Who’s that lefty?”
xix “Dodgers Notebook: White Emerges Quickly as Leader,” Los Angeles Daily News, April 7, 1999.
xx Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Through a Diamond. (San Francisco: Rudi Publishing, 2001), 115.
xxi Al Chase, “Onan Masaoka learned in surprise first season,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 8, 1999.
xxii Al Chase, “Onan Masaoka learned.”
xxiii “Dodgers Notebook. Karros Knows He May Be Departing,” Los Angeles Daily News, September 23, 1999.
xxiv Victoria Sun, “Masaoka hopes ’pen will write his ticket to L.A.,” Las Vegas Sun, July 20, 2001.
xxv Al Chase, “Baseball can wait for Masaoka,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 29, 2002.
xxvi Stacy Kaneshiro, “Masaoka says no deal with Texas,” Honolulu Advertiser, May 15, 2007.
xxvii Marino, “Local Boy’s Trade.”
xxviii Stacy Kaneshiro, “Baseball can wait.”
xxix Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana, May 3, 2009.
xxx Robert Collias, “Valley Isle’s Golden Baseball League team to be called Na Ikaika Koa Maui,” Maui News, December 22, 2009.
xxxi “Masaoka holding baseball camps,” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, May 15, 2011,
xxxii Marino, “Local Boy’s Trade.”
xxxiii Shishido, “Onan Masaoka.”