Hawaii has been sending more and more men to the majors in recent years. Through the end of the 2011 season, 37 men born in the Aloha State had made it to The Show; 14 of them arrived from 2000 onward. Yet only one player out of the whole group, which dates back to 1914, has hailed from the little island of Molokai. That was middle infielder Keith Luuloa, who went 6 for 18 in a two-week cup of coffee with the Anaheim Angels in 2000.
Keith H. M. Luuloa was born on December 24, 1974 in Honolulu. It’s likely that his parents, Henry and Claire, were among the many Molokai residents who choose to have their children delivered on Oahu because of the better medical facilities. Molokai, justly known as the Friendly Isle, is a quiet (not a single traffic light), relaxed home to about 8,000 people, many of whom are part native Hawaiian in ancestry. The island’s west side is arid while the eastern end boasts lush rain forests. Residents are fiercely protective of their lifestyle and have opposed commercial development. Molokai is also internationally known as the home of Saint Damien (Joseph De Veuster), the Catholic priest from Belgium who came to the island in 1873 to minister to the needs of the leprosy-stricken residents of Kalaupapa.
Luuloa is a native Hawaiian surname, and it is common on Molokai. Hawaiian-language purists spell it Lu’uloa, which gives a clue to the pronunciation (LOO-oo-loh-uh) – something various announcers wrestled with on the mainland. His middle initials might stand for long Hawaiian names too. The given name of his younger brother Miles (who played Single-A ball in 2000 and 2001) is Keola.i
The Luuloas lived in Kaunakakai, the island’s largest town. The baseball and softball field near downtown – all three blocks of it – is often busy. It’s a nice spot to sit and watch a game and meet the locals. The people of Molokai have been enjoying baseball for a long time. Indeed, by early in the 20th century even the Kalaupapa colony had a baseball grounds and several teams (mentioned by Jack London in his book The Cruise of the Snark). It’s also likely that the two big pineapple growers, Dole and Del Monte, helped foster the baseball culture. Dole operated plantations in Molokai from the 1920s through 1975, while Del Monte lingered on into the 1980s.
Luuloa went to Molokai High School in Hoolehua. Former big-league pitcher Steve Trout coached there for a year in 2010, but from 1974 through 2000, the team was under the direction of Ken Nakayama. Nakayama – who emphasized traditional values such as being on time, working hard, and showing respect – later called Keith an inspiration to his program.ii The underdog Farmers won back-to-back state titles in 1999 and 2000.
In a 2001 story, Luuloa noted that Molokai players had to travel to nearby Maui or Oahu to get exposure and competition. “It’s so expensive to fly anywhere, to other islands,” he said.iii One of those flights had a tragic ending. On October 28, 1989, Aloha IslandAir Flight 1712 went down in rain and heavy clouds, killing everyone on board instantly -- half of the people on the plane were from the Molokai boys and girls volleyball teams. Journalist Robert Collias of the Maui News said, “I will never forget watching Keith Luuloa’s eyes fill with tears as he was interviewed for ESPN’s Scholastic Sports America show on the one-year anniversary. He was a freshman who flew on the other plane home that night -- he nearly got on the plane that went down.”iv Subsequently, Molokai teams took the ferry instead.
Luuloa was outstanding in volleyball and was named Player of the Year in 1991 in the Maui Interscholastic League. Rob Collias said that Keith “could jump out of the gym. . .but was an even better baseball player.”v Although Luuloa loved volleyball, he and his father knew that baseball could offer him a career and new horizons. He said, “Coming from Molokai, you feel like you always have to prove yourself. I wanted to get off the rock and I knew there were better baseball players out there. I wanted to see where I stood. The hardest thing is leaving the rock. I’m proud of myself for taking a chance.”vi
The 18-year-old went to Modesto Junior College (MJC) in California, becoming an all-state shortstop there. The California Angels, as they were then known, selected him in the 33rd round of the 1993 draft (the only other man from that round who made it to the majors was Kevin Sefcik). Keith – the first player drafted out of Molokai – did not sign until May 1994. Instead, he stayed with MJC. Junior college players have until the week before the next draft to be signed by the original team that drafted them.
Then, two weeks after signing, “Keith Luuloa’s professional baseball career began with a bang -- a bad-news kind of bang. He was a passenger in a car that flipped 3 1/2 times in an accident near Sonora. ‘There are things you can’t control,’ Luuloa said. ‘That was one of them.’”vii He got into just 28 games with California’s Rookie League team in Arizona, hitting .299 with a homer and 10 RBIs.
After that Keith played at home in the Hawaii Winter League (HWL), which had begun operations in 1993. He joined the Maui Stingrays, playing shortstop along with Craig Counsell. In the spring of 1995, he moved up to Lake Elsinore in the California League (high Single-A). Although he committed 38 errors at short, he had a fairly good season with the bat (.263-5-53). The Modesto Bee observed that he had “made steady progress.”viii It was enough to advance to Double-A for 1996, following his second and last season with the Stingrays. A change in position that winter was notable, from shortstop to second base.
Luuloa’s progress took time, though. He spent 1996 (.260-7-44) and 1997 (.273-9-59) with Midland in the Texas League. His performance was by no means bad, but a July 1997 headline in the Honolulu Advertiser summed it up well: “Molokai’s Luuloa making strides; Angels’ prospect improves skills, waits for chance.” He played about 75% of his games at second base and 25% at short.
Returning to Midland for a third season, Luuloa branched out into a utility role.ix Mainly, though, he hit too well for the organization not to promote him: .334, with 17 homers, 43 doubles, 10 triples, and 102 RBIs. “He really jump-started his career,” said Angels general manager Bill Bavasi to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. That story added, “The difference? Luuloa hit the gym. He had never been a proponent of weightlifting, fearing it would hurt his flexibility. But with nothing to lose, he started a weight program in the off-season. He couldn’t believe the difference. ‘Before I wouldn’t hit it very hard. Now I swing and the ball just jumps,’ he said.”x
As Luuloa’s 1999 baseball card observed, “Plays above his tools . . . Became a selective hitter and blossomed . . . Has gotten stronger . . . Can help you out defensively at almost any position.” Keith played everywhere except catcher and center field in 1998 and batted in eight different spots in the lineup.
Luuloa spent the tail end of 1998 with Triple-A Vancouver; then the following winter went 15 for 45 in 13 games with the Caracas Leones in the Venezuelan league. The following spring, he was a non-roster invitee to major-league camp, and he opened eyes with his play, nearly sticking with the Angels as a utilityman. It took until early April before the Angels sent him to their new top affiliate, Edmonton of Pacific Coast League. Though his production dipped in 1999 (.285-4-46), the Los Angeles Times reported in August, “Keith Luuloa is having another fine year.”xi
Luuloa had a good camp again in 2000 and was on watch for a call-up from Edmonton early that season. On May 16, the Angels optioned Australian infielder Trent Durrington to Edmonton and purchased Keith’s contract from the Trappers. Gary DiSarcina had a sore shoulder, and the Los Angeles papers noted that Luuloa would back up Benji Gil at shortstop. At age 25, the Hawaiian was finally in the majors.
In August 2000, Luuloa said, “It’s everybody’s dream to get there. I had a great time. So far, it’s been the best two weeks of my life. The experience of being up there, just being around the players, hearing what they’re trying to say, it was great. You have to sit down and figure out what’s going on, as far as not touching your luggage, or not doing certain things to upset the older players. It was weird at first, but you learn as you go . . .and just hope you don’t do anything wrong.”xii
In his debut on May 17 at Anaheim, Luuloa pinch-ran for slow-footed catcher Bengie Molina in the eighth inning. He scored the tying run in a game that the Angels went on to win 8-7. Keith’s first start came four days later, and though he went 0 for 3 in that game, he connected for six singles in his remaining 15 at-bats. Three of those came at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field on May 31.
Nonetheless, right after his three-hit game, the Angels returned Luuloa to Edmonton. They were clearing room for Kevin Stocker, who had signed after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays released him. Manager Mike Scioscia, breaking the tough news, told Luuloa that he’d be getting more opportunities and that he deserved to be in the majors.xiii Stocker was sidelined briefly in June, prompting talk that Keith might return for another spell, but it was not to be -- then or ever.
On July 28, Anaheim traded Luuloa and pitcher Brett Hinchliffe to the Chicago Cubs for a career minor-leaguer and two other players who never appeared in the majors again. “I’m in terrible shock right now,” Keith told the Edmonton Journal. “I’ve never been traded -- I’ve never experienced this, so we’ll see what happens. If it’s going to help my career, then so be it. I’ve been with this organization for six years already, so I got used to it, and had a great time here. But a change is also good in some ways.”
He added, “I think I’m more valuable on a National League team with my experience of playing all kinds of positions, with the double-switches and guys hitting for a pitcher, then being replaced by a defensive player.” Edmonton manager Garry Templeton said, “His versatility is so great that I always have someone to put somewhere.”xiv
Unfortunately, Keith appeared in just four games with Chicago’s Triple-A team, the Iowa Cubs. He suffered a fractured trapezoid bone in his left wrist -- as he slid into second base he was hit by the opposing shortstop’s throw to first.
In October 2000, Luuloa was granted free agency. The next month he signed a minor-league contract with the San Diego Padres, and started the 2001 season with the Portland Beavers, again in the Pacific Coast League. Keith started off hitting over .300 and made himself valuable again by playing six positions (he was also the club’s emergency pitcher). Beavers manager Rick Sweet was optimistic, saying that if his utilityman found the right situation, he could wind up back in the majors and play for five to 10 years.xv
Instead, he “began to see less and less playing time as the Padres sent two more infielders/outfielders to Portland, players more highly thought of as prospects in the San Diego organization. ‘I was only playing every third or fourth day,’ Luuloa said. ‘When I was released (July 16), I didn’t blow up. I told Rick Sweet that I understood what was happening and being released might actually help me. I know he took it hard, because I did everything he wanted, but it became a numbers game. After I signed, San Diego just kept picking up infielders.”xvi
A day later, Keith signed with New Orleans in the Houston Astros organization. It was an undistinguished season (.252-6-27 in 100 games overall). “I wanted to go on the market and get with a team where I had a chance to play,” he said. “I took New Orleans because I wanted to be in the playoffs and I haven't been there for a while. [But] the situation was similar to Portland, New Orleans [was] stacked with 40-man (roster) players, so I pinch hit a lot. It's hard to get your timing, so I just tried to be aggressive.”xvii
In the winter of 2001-02, winter baseball came back to Panama after a dormant period of nearly 30 years. The revival lasted just one season, though, and Luuloa’s stay with Los Macheteros de Azuero was even briefer. He left the club in mid-November after less than three weeks.xviii
In March 2002, the Indianapolis Indians, top farm club of the Milwaukee Brewers, signed Luuloa to a minor-league free agent contract. He bounced back and forth between Indianapolis (.189-0-3 in 31 games) and Double-A Huntsville. “It was a roller coaster,” he told the Star-Bulletin that October. “I thought I would play every day in Indianapolis, but there was no chance. I sat for two months.” The story continued, “When Greg Riddoch, who signed [him] in the offseason, called and asked if he was willing to go down to Huntsville, Luuloa jumped at the opportunity. ‘The phrase is – you are not going to get a job next year sitting on the bench. I had the best time in Huntsville. I never met a better group of ball players.’” The 27-year-old was addressed as “grandpa” one day on the team bus.xix
Although Luuloa’s performance at Huntsville was unexceptional (.254-9-34 in 80 games), he noted, “It was my first time in the Southern League. I think it was OK. It’s hot and humid and balls don't carry too much. You have to hit the ball hard or away from people.”xx Keith hoped to re-sign with the organization for 2003, and he did in fact return to Indianapolis. He had just a fair year (.259-11-54) and in 2004bhe wound up signing with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. “I started going backward,” he told the Star-Bulletin after his retirement in 2005. “I wasn’t playing every day, I was platooning. Finally, it got to the point where I didn’t get any telephone calls and I ended up in Bridgeport.”xxi
Luuloa did a nice job with the Bluefish (.313-6-51), playing mainly at third base. After the 2004 season ended, he went back to Southern California, where he had made his home after moving to the mainland in 1995. He had promised his wife, Denise Yanagisawa, that if nothing big had happened in his career by the time he was 30, that would be it for pro baseball.xxii Although he apparently did not receive any offers to get back with a big-league organization, the door was still open in Bridgeport. “I knew I wanted to go back, talked with the general manager, but I left it up in the air. I was working at Costco, was promoted to supervisor and things were headed in the right direction. I decided to move on. I just wanted to be home and be a family man.”xxiii Keith and Denise (an attorney), adopted a boy named Cheyne and later had their own son, Ashton.
In the early 2000s, Keith helped a friend run a baseball camp during the offseason and volunteered as a hitting coach at Lake Elsinore High School in California.xxiv He remained involved with the game sporadically. For example, in January 2007 he joined two other Hawaiian big-leaguers, Shane Victorino and Kanekoa Texeira (then coming off his first pro season) for a clinic on their home island of Maui.xxv As of 2011, Luuloa was again living in Hawaii. He was still with Costco, working for their location in Kahului, Maui.
“I’ve thought about being the first player from Molokai,” Luuloa said in 2005. “I decided to pursue the career and proved to the people of Molokai that anything is possible if you make the best of it. I played a long 10 years, had a blast, met tons of people and went to places I never even dreamed about. It is good that other people have followed me. Someone had to test the waters.
“I made the best of my time with the Angels, gave it my all. I loved a game I got paid to play. I played a kid’s game and had fun.”xxvi
Mahalo to Rob Collias, Rick Schonely, and Donna L. Ching for her input on Molokai.
www.purapelota.com (Venezuelan statistics)
i Barbara Church, “Local Passion for National Pastime,” Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1996.
ii “Coaching for life,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 19, 1999. Dave Reardon, “Luuloa an inspiration
to Farmers,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, May 19, 2000.
iii “Off the rock, Luuloa flies,” Portland Tribune, June 22, 2001.
iv Robert Collias, “20 years ago today, Molokai changed,” Maui News, October 28, 2009.
vi “Off the rock, Luuloa flies”
vii Ron Agostini, “Ex-Pirate Catches Eye of Storm,” Modesto Bee, April 15, 1995, C-1.
viii Ron Agostini, “Modesto A’s Update,” Modesto Bee, August 22, 1995, C-5.
ix Al Chase, “Luuloa gets ‘A’ for effort in Double-A,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 29, 1998.
x Scott Bordow, “Angel all over the field,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 2, 1999.
xi “Minor League Report,” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1999.
xii David DiCenzo, “Luuloa anxiously waiting to get the call,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin. August 5, 2000.
xiii Dave Reardon, “Angels’ Luuloa back to Triple-A,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 1, 2000.
xv “Off the rock, Luuloa flies”
xvi Al Chase, “Luuloa seeks return to majors,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 15, 2001.
xviii Daniel Rodríguez S., “Al fin ganaron los Macheteros, blanqueron a Cerveza Panamá 6-0,” La Prensa (Panama), November 19, 2001.
xix Al Chase, “Local players battle in minors,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 12, 2002.
xxi Al Chase, “Molokai’s Luuloa done after 10 years,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 5, 2005.
xxii Chase, “Luuloa seeks return to majors”
xxiii Chase, “Molokai’s Luuloa done after 10 years”
xxiv Chase, “Luuloa seeks return to majors”
xxv Robert Collias, “Valley Isle Sports / In Brief.” Maui News, December 21, 2006.
xxvi Ibid. Other draft picks from Molokai since Keith Luuloa: Nathan Starkey (1996), Michael McCutcheon (1996), Miles Luuloa (1998 and 1999), Keahi Rawlins (2002), Milton Loo (2004 and 2005).