Stepping Up To The Plate
From big dreams to the big leagues, Hilo’s Kolten Wong has made his mark on baseball’s greatest stage while remaining grounded in his local roots.
While growing up on the Big Island, Kolten Wong’s sights were constantly fixed on Major League Baseball. His dream, after all, was to one day become a professional player.
These days, however, the Hilo native turned St. Louis Cardinals infielder can’t seem to take his eyes off his island home. Like so many others, Wong is concerned about the 3-month-old Kīlauea volcanic eruption, which has affected thousands of people in the Puna district. Since the lava began flowing in early May, the baseball standout has relied on his sister, Kiani, to provide him with updates.
More importantly, he’s stepped up to the plate and looked for ways to help. Of note, Wong immediately started a GoFundMe page, and says support has grown within the online community as the need for food and shelter to assist the displaced became apparent.
And yet, he wanted to do even more.
“How can I help these people get back on their feet?” Wong recalls thinking. “Is there a way that I can create housing, build hope and let those affected know that it’s not all said and done?”
That additional help would soon arrive in the form of other pro athletes with Hawai‘i ties. Kamu Grugier-Hill, a Kamehameha Schools Kapālama graduate and current member of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, approached Wong about joining forces with others to enhance the fundraising effort. The duo connected with Marcus Mar-iota (Tennessee Titans quarterback), Isiah Kiner-Falefa (Texas Rangers infielder), Max Holloway (UFC Featherweight champion) and Yancy Medeiros (UFC fighter) to launch “Be a Hero for Hawai‘i Challenge,” a friendly competition that encourages their teammates, rivals and fans to donate.
According to Wong, nearly $100,000 has been raised between the GoFundMe page and the Challenge, which directs all monies to the Hawai‘i Island Volcano Recovery Fund at Hawai‘i Community Foundation. Funds raised will help with addressing housing needs for residents displaced by the volcanic eruption, and will also be used in other communities should another disaster occur.
“This is home for me — this is where I grew up. It’s the place where I learned how to play baseball, and they have so much pride in me, and I wanted to do something for the people who don’t have the means that I do,” says Wong. “While it’s a friendly competition between us athletes, we’re all doing this for Hawai‘i and coming together to raise money for those suffering. All these athletes who are really big sports figures from Hawai‘i are teaming up to create something good.”
Wong noticed the aloha spirit in action, and immediately received inquiries from teammates asking about ways in which they could help. Big-name players, including Cardinals mainstays Dexter Fowler and Adam Wainwright, pledged money to help the cause, and that response permeated throughout the league.
“By using this platform that we have, we want to bring Hawai‘i back to how it used to be — where aloha is there, the love is there and caring for people is there,” says Wong, 27. “We’ve lost some of that as Hawaiians, and need to restore that mentality as we take care of one another.”
Wong’s tenacious work ethic and drive to succeed took him from prep baseball excellence at Kamehameha Schools Hawai‘i to University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he is still regarded as one of the best Rainbow Warriors ever to come out of the program. In fact, his jersey is one of three retired by the university. The others belong to 1970s pitching phenom Derek Tatsuno and legendary manager Les Murakami.
“We’re honored to retire Kolten’s No. 14 that he wore here at UH,” says Hawai‘i baseball coach Mike Trapasso. “The incredible accomplishments on the field, and the type of person he is off the field made this an easy decision. Fans see Kolten’s 14 on the outfield wall next to Coach Les Murakami’s 11 and Derek Tatsuno’s 16. That’s rarified air and well deserved.”
After the St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the first round of the 2011 draft, Wong blitzed through the minor leagues before making his big-league debut on Aug. 16, 2013. He played in 32 regular games that season, made the postseason roster and, as a rookie, was part of the Cardinals run to the World Series that saw St. Louis come up short against the Boston Red Sox.
Eventually, Wong solidified his spot on the active roster and became the team’s starting second baseman. In 2015, he finished the stellar campaign with a .262 batting average, 28 doubles, four triples, 11 home runs and 71 runs scored. The Cardinals’ speedy middle infielder parlayed that success into a five-year contract extension that runs through 2020. The contract is worth $25.5 million, and includes a team option of $12.5 million for one more season that could potentially keep him in red and white through 2021.
“Anytime we’re playing, whether it’s on the West Coast or the East Coast, no matter where we’re at, if I hear a ‘chee hoo’ or see some Hawaiians in the crowd, I make sure to go and say ‘what’s up?’ take a picture and do what I have to do to show my appreciation,” he says. “I know Hawaiians are always proud of Hawaiians, so I always make sure to take care of my people. The West Coast trips are always fun because I know I’ll get to see a lot of family coming out, all the transplants from Hawai‘i, and it’s always a good time.”
The 2018 campaign has seen Wong endure some rough patches, including his struggling at the plate in comparison to his past productivity, as well as injuries to his forearm and knee – ailments that have led to multiple stints on the disabled list. Despite the setbacks, Wong has done his best to contribute, and is still regarded as one of the team’s top defenders while also adding two game-winning, walk-off home runs earlier this season.
“I always believed in myself and thought that I had a chance of getting this far,” he says. “But for me, it was more about trying to get a college education and take it from there. It’s definitely been a blessing to be doing what I’m doing now, and being at the pinnacle of my career, there’s still a lot more to go.”
Following his career, Wong plans on giving back to the next generation of aspiring athletes by organizing baseball camps and other possibilities for keiki in Hawai‘i, and especially the Big Island.
“I understand that baseball provided a gateway for me to make a name for myself and help me build a life for my family, and I know that there are a bunch of kids with talent that just need that opportunity to go out there and play the game they love,” Wong says.
PITCH IN ON THE EFFORT
Donations to the “Be a Hero for Hawai‘i Challenge” can be made online at heroesforhawaii.org., or by mail to Hawai‘i Community Foundation, 827 Fort Street Mall, Honolulu, HI, 96813. Please note which sports team is being supported when sending donations via mail.
To track the progress of each “team” during the challenge, visit the website or search #HeroesforHawaii on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to find player information and updates.