A few weeks ago I interviewed Keoni DeRenne, an infielder who is currently on the disabled list for the Portland Sea Dogs. Since we’re both from Hawai‘i, there was an implicit understanding between us about what it means to uproot oneself to pursue a dream. Here is most of our conversation; I had to leave out the part about Sid Fernandez and the ’86 Mets (but you know I had to cheer for them then; I was living in Hawai‘i at the time). This interview can also be found on the Royal Rooters message board.
JH: How often do you return to Hawai‘i?
KD: I go back every off-season. I have family there and also in California. I’m very excited because my sister is going to have her first baby. It will be my first niece.
JH: Do you get involved with the baseball community in Hawai‘i?
KD: When I’m back in the islands I give one-on-one lessons on Sundays. I also run 10 to 12 clinics or camps every off-season.
I think baseball is resurging in Hawai‘i. There’s the Hawaii Collegiate Baseball League, which started just last year. It’s a Division I NCAA summer league that gives kids that are away for school most of the year a chance to play in a competitive league. A lot of times it’s hard for parents and friends of Hawaiian kids to be able to see the players in person, and it’s a chance for them to continue to play and develop.
There’s also been talk of bringing back Hawaii Winter Baseball. A lot of great players were on HWB teams, like Ichiro Suzuki, Mark Kotsay, and Todd Helton. It also was a way to showcase Hawaiian players like Benny Agbayani and Shane Victorino.
JH: Victorino of the Phillies has been getting some playing time in the majors with Aaron Rowand’s injury. Did you hear about Victorino before he made the big leagues?
KD: All during high school Shane and I played against each other. I was playing for Iolani on O‘ahu while he went to St. Anthony’s High School on Maui. While I was at Iolani we won three straight state championships.
JH: Do you keep in touch with other guys from Hawai‘i?
KD: There’s sort of a fraternity of us. I’m close to Bronson Sardinha, a third baseman in the Yankees system and Dane Sardinha, a catcher on the Reds farm. The game can be so monotonous, it helps to have an outlet to talk about things with someone you grew up with and knows your background.
JH: Did you follow the Ewa Beach Little League World Series championship run?
KD: Whenever the team played I would watch them. They seemed a lot taller than when I was growing up playing baseball!
This is another example of how baseball is becoming more important in the islands. The younger generations can look to this team and know that even though they are from a small, remote place they can compete against kids from all over the world.
JH: Do you ever get homesick?
KD: I never do. I want to play in the big leagues, but there’s no team back there. I can’t trade in this opportunity.
To me, baseball is like a vacation. Who else gets to play for living? And, when work is done, I get to go back to the islands for another vacation.
JH: Do you think our state is at a disadvantage in terms of getting players into the majors?
KD: I think we used to be overlooked because we’re so far away. But scouts and agents can’t use that as an excuse any longer because of how quickly information on a promising player can be communicated.
Hawai‘i is sheltered, however. If someone wants to pursue baseball competitively but isn’t ready to make a full commitment, he can’t stay at home and go to junior college. He has to make a huge leap and move thousands of miles away to get exposure.
I wasn’t drafted out of high school and I opted to go to college. It was a blessing in disguise. I got to go to college and get seasoning as a player as well as the academic experience. I believe that God had a plan for me.
JH: Going back to Hawaiian kids getting drafted: catcher Kurt Suzuki was drafted by the As in 2004 in the second round despite his size. Do you think your size (5'7" and 170 pounds) has impacted the role teams expect you to play?
KD: Size will always be my downfall. If I could take a pill that could make me grow six inches, I would have. But you can’t measure someone’s heart.
I can still be valuable to a team but getting the job done. I’m not flashy, but I hit when the situation matters and I play good defense. Teams want winners and players that do what they are supposed to do numbers-wise.
Big guys have to prove they can’t play while little guys have to prove they can. But I’m up to the challenge.
JH: Why did you decide to sign with the Red Sox as a free agent?
KD: While I was with the Diamondbacks organization they were going through a lot of changes. A new ownership group came on board and the entire situation was chaotic. Bob Brenly got fired and the big league team had their worst season since it was founded.
I wanted an opportunity to play and Arizona didn’t have any room for me with all the changes.
Coming to the Red Sox organization has been incredible. The guys who get drafted by this team don’t realize how lucky they are. The feeling the fans have for the team is like no other place.
I got to play in a Spring Training game while Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta, and Mike Timlin where still on the field. I actually got to throw an assist to Timlin. The fans were intense even though it was meaningless game against the Devil Rays.
JH: Who did you look up to as a baseball player?
KD: My father was my role model and mentor. In the 70s and 80s he was a recruiting coordinator at the University of Hawai‘i as well as an outfield and hitting coach.
Also, Lenn Sakata, who played for the Orioles and backed up Cal Ripken, Jr. He was a tremendous influence on me because he was an infielder, too. I learned an immense amount from Lenn about fielding.
Finally, there is Mike Fetters who is originally from Hawai‘i but now lives in Arizona. He didn’t give me baseball advice, as he was a pitcher, but no one else taught me more about the behind-the-scenes aspects of professional baseball. From him I learned how to act like a professional at all levels. Fetters is like the stepfather of all the Hawaiian kids in pro ball. His home is always open to the Hawai‘i guys. He and his wife have all the knowledge and wisdom of the business of baseball, things you can’t learn from books. Fetters is so respected in the Hawaiian baseball community that he was flown back to be the Grand Marshal in the parade for the Ewa Beach Little League team.
One of the best times I’ve had in baseball was when Fetters was attempting a comeback in 2004. He was rehabbing in Tucson while I was there at the same time. We also have the Iolani connection: his catcher while he was at Iolani was my coach.
JH: Funny how things come full circle like that.
KD: They say Hawai‘i is a small world, but baseball is, too. I may never make it into the big leagues, but I’ve made a world of friends.