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The Flyin' Hawaiian
By Alan Maimon
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Alan Maimon and Shane Victorino
All rights reserved.
It must have been a record for the greatest amount of candy ever dumped on a motel room bed in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.
Shane Victorino, fresh off a marathon flight from Maui and a five-hour drive through the outer reaches of Montana, had barely exchanged hellos with his roommate, Dave Detienne, when the seemingly endless stream of confections started flowing from Victorino's backpack.
The introduction to the newest member of the rookie league Great Falls Dodgers left Detienne slack-jawed. "It was my second year playing for Great Falls," Detienne said. "They told me I was going to get the new guy from Hawaii as my roommate. I was, like, 'Okay, that's fine.' Well, we're on the road in Medicine Hat when he joins the team and he comes running into the motel room all loud and hyper, and immediately starts dumping out all this candy. And he's just talking a mile a minute. 'Hi, I'm Shane. How's it going? Where you from?' He had his mouth full of candy and he asked me if I wanted to eat some candy, too. He was really kind of freaking out. I'm thinking to myself, Wow, this guy really has some energy. Maybe he's on a sugar high or something."
The role high-fructose corn syrup played in the commotion was open to debate, but that the 18-year-old from Maui was excited to be in Medicine Hat, or anywhere else he had to go to play professional baseball, was beyond dispute.
Victorino had spent the previous weeks deliberating his future and professional goals, weighty subjects for any 18-year-old, and especially for Victorino, who had always lived for the moment. The soul-searching led to this first stop, north of the border to a Canadian town known more for slap shots than stolen bases.
On June 2, 1999, a few weeks before Victorino met his Great Falls teammates in Medicine Hat, the Dodgers made him their sixth-round pick, the 194th overall selection, in that year's Major League Baseball draft. Leading up to that day, Victorino had publicly stated he would sign a professional baseball contract if he got drafted in the top eight rounds. But based on what scouts were telling him, it appeared he might go closer to the 12th round. If that turned out to be true, he was leaning toward attending college. The University of Hawaii was prepared to offer him at least a partial baseball scholarship. And he was also being courted by soccer programs at the University of California, Berkeley, and Hawaii Pacific University.
The drama increased on draft day. Within hours of his selection by the Dodgers, University of Hawaii football coach June Jones, who had followed Victorino since his hiring by Hawaii a year and a half earlier, phoned Victorino's home to extend him a full baseball and football scholarship. Jones wanted Victorino to catch passes in his high-octane offense in the fall and star on the diamond for the Rainbow Warriors in the spring. The offer was tempting to Victorino for two reasons: it would allow him to stay close to home, and it would allow him to play two of the four sports he starred in at St. Anthony High School in Maui. In addition to baseball, football, and soccer, he also ran track.
On draft day, Victorino's hometown paper, The Maui News, which had named him its male athlete of the year a week earlier, pressed him about his plans. "I honestly don't know right at this moment," Victorino responded. "I don't know much about the Dodgers and their farm system. I just have to sit down and figure everything out."
For Victorino, playing the games had always been the easy part. Sports came naturally to him and, because of his problems with hyperactivity, had in some ways been a savior. Everyone in Maui marveled at his development as an athlete.
"When I first knew him, he was the little kid in the park running around like crazy, going from group to group," said Craig Okita, who was Victorino's assistant baseball coach at St. Anthony. "In high school, he showed he had so much raw talent. He was the best hitter I've seen in high school at that age."
Though he adored all the sports he played, Victorino decided his preferred future was on the baseball diamond. His mother wanted him to get a college education. But a few days after the draft, he inked a contract with the Dodgers while sitting at the dining room table of his family's Wailuku home.
"There were choices for me to make, and my family and I talked about the different options," Victorino said. "My mom was very big on education. I told her that college will be there for me later, but I didn't know if I'd have the chance again to get drafted and play minor league ball. It took a lot of thinking, but with the longevity and the opportunities baseball presented, we felt like it was best suited for who I was. And it was just an exciting opportunity."
In choosing baseball, Victorino followed his heart, but for years, he would periodically question the decision. During particularly frustrating moments in the minor leagues, he felt tempted to pick up the phone to see if June Jones' offer of a football scholarship was still on the table.
The contract with the Dodgers came with a $115,000 signing bonus. As a member of the rookie league team, he would earn $650 per month and play alongside most of the organization's 1999 high school draftees. His instructions were to report to Great Falls of the Pioneer League's North Division immediately, but due to a lingering dental problem, he could not depart for Montana right away. A procedure to remove his impacted wisdom teeth required about 10 days of recovery time.
When he was ready to travel, about 75 well-wishers gathered at Kahului Airport to say goodbye to Victorino, who sported a pair of white pants, a white ball-cap, and a shirt that was somewhere between teal and turquoise. Mike Victorino Jr., Shane's older brother, recalled the scene at the gate of the airport: "I was crying. I remember he was sobbing, too. Everyone was very emotional. Seeing him go away was like seeing a boy become a man."
Shane had eight hours of flying time to mentally prepare himself for the enormous challenge that lay ahead. Born and raised on the island paradise of Maui, ohana, or family, was immensely important to him. But on that June day in 1999 when he joined his minor league team, he left loved ones behind to embark on his climb up the professional baseball ladder. As he devoured fistfuls of sweets in the motel in Medicine Hat, he and his new teammates stood on the bottom rung of the ladder. There was no sugar-coating that reality.
* * *
Shane Victorino's evolution from scrappy all-around athlete to serious baseball prospect happened quickly — and with a degree of luck. Yes, major league scouts flocked to Hawaii during his senior year of high school but not necessarily to get a look at him. The object of their desire was a talented pitcher from Honolulu named Jerome Williams, who in his senior year at Waipahu High School boasted an 8–1 record with a microscopic 0.12 ERA. Williams wound up as a first-round selection of the San Francisco Giants in the 1999 draft, taken 155 picks before the Dodgers chose Victorino.
While scouts were in the "neighborhood" of islands looking at Williams, a growing number decided to check out the 5'9", 170-pound dynamo from Maui who was putting up big numbers of his own at St. Anthony High School. Hawaiian scout Eric Tokunaga, who worked for the Kansas City Royals at the time, was one of the first baseball emissaries to take real notice of Victorino. Tokunaga got a good glimpse of him at a high school tournament on the island of Kauai in the early spring of 1999.
"He stole five bases, got down the line in less than four seconds, and came in as a relief pitcher and threw 86 miles per hour," said Tokunaga, a standout shortstop in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the University of Hawaii. "He did a lot of stuff that day that I hadn't seen on a baseball field. It was clear to me he was a different player from everybody else. But I think the other scouts didn't see that because he wasn't big in stature, and he wasn't hitting the ball very hard."
When the Royals worked out Victorino on Hawaii's Big Island, Tokunaga looked on as Victorino smoked the ball all over the field with a wooden bat. He approached Shane's dad, Mike Victorino Sr., who was watching from the stands. Tokunaga introduced himself and told the elder Victorino he thought his son had a possible future in Major League Baseball. In fact, Tokunaga told him, he had the potential to be the next Rickey Henderson, baseball's all-time stolen base king who also had racked up more than 3,000 hits during a Hall of Fame career.
"What? You're kidding me, right?" was Mike Victorino's surprised response.
His astonishment did not signify a lack of confidence in his son's athletic ability. Rather, it was suggestive of a sports culture on the Hawaiian islands that was less pressure-filled than on the mainland. Kids played sports for enjoyment, not to groom themselves for professional careers. Mike's sons were no exception.
"I knew Shane had abilities, but when I heard what Eric was saying, I thought, Come on! Don't blow too much smoke here," Mike Victorino said.
When Tokunaga started phoning the Victorino home a few times a week during Shane's senior season, his mother, Joycelyn, did not know what to make of it. Who was this man calling her son and asking how his baseball season was going? Why did he care so much about a high school baseball player?
"She was really upset, because she thought I was harassing her son," Tokunaga said. "She didn't know who I was or what I was doing."
Joycelyn Victorino's standoffishness was in contrast to an otherwise sunny disposition. But she felt it was important to keep her son grounded, and she wanted to maintain parental control. "I was mad at Eric," she said. "I told him I didn't appreciate him calling and talking to my son, putting all these things in his head when there was a chance nothing would come to fruition. I told him, 'You build up his big hopes, and then maybe he has a great fall. If you call our house, you respect us as parents. You talk to us first, and we'll give you permission to talk to Shane.'"
Fred Engh, the founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, a book that casts a critical eye on parental over-involvement in youth athletics, believes Joycelyn Victorino's reaction to the calls was fully justified. "Mrs. Victorino is a rare exception today," Engh says. "If all parents were like her, then the world of organized sports for children would be much different, and better, today. Today's parents would give up a lot to have a child as gifted and talented as Shane, and they will go to unbelievable lengths to try to make it happen."
As someone paid to deliver his bosses the best possible talent, Tokunaga was just doing his job. But he heeded Joycelyn's wishes and began going through her and her husband first before talking to Shane. Thanks to his glowing reports to the home office about the kid from Maui, the Royals sent Steve Flores, the organization's senior scout responsible for vetting prospects, to check out Victorino's game.
When Flores, a so-called national crosschecker, came to Hawaii to look at Tokunaga's potential draftees, he asked to see Victorino take batting practice and run the 60-yard dash. But he also requested to watch him play in a soccer game near Waikiki. During the game, a dog ran on the field, disrupting play for several minutes. The referees and some of the players tried to chase the animal off, to no avail. Then Victorino sprang into action, taking off after the dog, catching him, and shooing him away, allowing play to continue.
Later that day, Shane did his formal workout for the scouts. After batting practice, Flores appeared ready to shut things down for the day.
"When do you want him to run the 60?" Tokunaga asked.
"We don't need to run him," his colleague replied. "The kid can catch a dog."
With Flores on board, the Royals set their sights on Victorino as a draft pick. And they likely would have gotten him if not for the impressive showing Victorino made during a last-minute tryout for another major league team, one that had never seen him play in high school.
With the encouragement of Tokunaga, who had by then earned the trust of the Victorino family and become an unofficial adviser to them, Shane flew to Los Angeles less than a week before the draft to take part in an open workout sponsored by the Dodgers. Decked out in all yellow, the colors of his high school, he made an impression on everyone before he even picked up a bat or glove. And when he hit three home runs at Dodger Stadium and outran everyone else at the camp — including future college football and NFL star Troy Polamalu, a multisport athlete in Oregon — Victorino immediately landed himself another strong suitor.
On draft day 1999, future major leaguers like Josh Hamilton, Josh Beckett, Barry Zito, and Ben Sheets got snapped up in the first round. Later in the draft, the Dodgers and Royals became engaged in a game of chicken over Victorino.
Tokunaga recalled the sequence of events that led to Victorino going to the Dodgers: "Before the draft, the Royals called me and told me to ask Shane how much he would sign for, because they were thinking of drafting him in the sixth or seventh round. During the draft, I called his mom, who told me he would sign for $100,000. Well, 15 minutes later, Shane calls me and says the Dodgers just drafted him in the sixth round. Oh my goodness, talk about being pissed off! We just missed getting him."
Gracious in defeat, Tokunaga sent Shane a postcard a few days after the draft. It read:
Congratulations on a one-of-a-kind high school career. It will be some time before someone like you comes along again. Also, I want to say congratulations on the draft and I still can't believe that we let you slip through our hands, but K.C.'s loss is L.A.'s gain.
How Victorino's career might have turned out differently had he gone to the Royals is a question that will never be answered.
* * *
Great Falls, Montana, population 50,000, calls itself the "Electric City," not because it promotes itself as a place of great excitement, but rather owing to the hydroelectric dams that lie on the nearby Missouri River. One of the area's claims to fame is that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed to Great Falls in the early 1800s to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Like Lewis and Clark, scores of young baseball players had ventured there since 1969 to explore big-league dreams. Before becoming the Great Falls Dodgers, the team had appropriately been named the Voyagers.
The 34 young men who saw action for the Great Falls Dodgers in the summer of 1999 arrived from a remarkably diverse array of places. The team's manager, Tony Harris, and two of its players were from Australia. Dave Detienne, Victorino's Nova Scotian roommate, was one of two Canadians on the roster. A tall Russian named Alexander Toropov was on the pitching staff. Another hurler came from Oxford, England. Add a smattering of Latin American players and it was as if the United Nations had relocated to rural Montana.
Before joining the team, Victorino shared what little he knew about the Treasure State with his hometown newspaper.
"I don't know much about Montana, other than it's boring, but that should give me the chance to concentrate on just baseball," he told The Maui News. "I look at this as a start of a journey."
Roommates Detienne and Victorino, one from a place of harsh winters, the other from a place of gorgeous beaches, were two of the players who came to Great Falls with great dreams.
Some of the young men who passed through town that summer left professional baseball after only a season or two. Others bounced around the minors for the better part of a decade before hanging it up. At least one member of the team wound up in prison. Of all the players the Dodgers organization thought enough of to send to rookie ball in 1999, only two made it to the majors within the next decade.
Their backgrounds as different as could be but their ambitions exactly the same, Victorino and Detienne quickly developed a kinship. They were roommates on the road, and in Great Falls they stayed in the home of a host couple named Bob and Elaine.
Excerpted from Shane Victorino by Alan Maimon. Copyright © 2014 Alan Maimon and Shane Victorino. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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