Where are they now? The Big Island’s first major league player, Masaoka’s favorite pitch remains the same today: Being of service

  • Onan Masaoka

  • Onan Masaoka played Major League baseball for the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000, but these days he’s just as happy as a program director with the county’s Elderly Recreation division. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Onan Masaoka was the pride of Hilo and the state when he pitched in 83 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999 and 2000 before retiring at 24 years old in 2002.

Since then the Major League Baseball average salary has nearly doubled, going from $2.3 million to $4.43 million.

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During the 2019 offseason, Gerrit Cole signed a $324 million, nine-year contract with the New York Yankees, shaking up the free agent market.

Right when Masaoka got out of the game, salaries exploded like a hot tech stock. But there are some things more priceless than money.

He’s still going strong and last pitched in March during the AJA playoffs prior to the coronavirus shutdown. Masaoka, a 1995 Waiakea graduate, found himself, his place in life and peace within himself.

In the curious case of where are they now?, Masaoka, 43, is a program director with the county’s Elderly Recreation division for the Puna and Ka’u district.

“Our main function is to provide seniors with opportunities to stay active,” he said. “We coordinate various classes that range from music, technology, fitness, etc., as well as plan events throughout the year for our senior clubs and senior age participants to enjoy.”

He’s been there the last five years. He started in the Nutrition’s Meals on Wheels program, after he got his college degree from UH-Hilo.

“I was surfing full-time, and I finally settled down as a full-time employee,” joked Masaoka, who in addition to a good fastball always had a dry sense of humor.

To those who know him, it’s not a surprise that Masaoka, born with the ability to throw a baseball hard and a caring heart, found a job that helps people.

“I believe in doing more than talking. Looking in at yourself more than looking out at others,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how a professional athlete, an elected official, or your neighbor is acting, we all have a conscience at one point or another that guides us in knowing right or wrong. And as individuals, we need to choose to do right. A scripture that guides me is Joshua 24:15 ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’

“If I could summarize for all the decisions that brought me to this point in my life, it has been with a motivation to continue growing as the person God made me to be. My approach to living has remained the same no matter what title I have held: work hard and make the most of each opportunity God gives me.”

Here’s the multi-million dollar question you’re likely thinking: Any regrets about retiring so young?

“I really don’t. I am proud of the time I got to spend in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization,” he said. “Upon starting my first season in Yakima, I made up my mind that I was going to do everything it took to make myself ready to prove that I could pitch against the best hitters. Sacrifice, physical and mental training in-season and off, it all led to accomplishing my goal. I didn’t set a timeframe nor did I focus on retiring from the game, I just wanted to strike people out.”

Baseball is often described as a game of failure. The best hitters fail more times than they succeed. It’s almost the same with pitchers, who can’t constantly throw shutouts or win every game.

Masaoka finished his career with a 3-5 record and 4.23 ERA. In 93 2/3 innings, he struck out 88 but walked 62, a self-induced recipe for disaster or self-doubt.

His belief in God encouraged from his mother, Elizabeth, helped. It settled his mind and shaped his path in life and connected him to God.

“Hard times in the minor leagues and having to face things alone from a young age. My mom instilled in me to believe in God and to hold tight to the promises he makes in the Bible, and I’m so thankful for this and God’s grace that continues to carry me through,” Masaoka said. “It allows me to live a life without a fear of having control or to know everything. I place my trust in God, and he promises that his plans are good for me.”

As such he found his way home and pitched for the Hilo Stars in 1995 and 1997 during the Hawaii Winter Baseball League. He also pitched for the Hawaii Stars, an independent team, which played against teams from Maui, California, and Japan.

“I enjoyed playing in both leagues, the latter was after I decided to give professional baseball a try again,” he said. “Definitely not as successful or athletic in 2013. However, I got to play with other ballplayers from Hilo, and we got to enjoy a two-week trip to Osaka and surrounding towns.”

He looked back and shared a few highlights from his career.

“Meeting Sandy Koufax, pitching against Barry Bonds, playing in new stadiums, staying in five-star hotels, plenty of memories. My first travel on the team chartered plane to LA. Seat belts were optional,” joked Masaoka, part-time comedian and full-time dad, his most enjoyable role.

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“The best thing that happened to me. The decision of moving on from my baseball career was hard but necessary during that point in my life. Once again, it took trusting God, and little did I know that I would meet my wife Christy within a year. I have two daughters, Layla and Joelle, who are smart like their mom and rascal like me, so I need to keep an eye on them. They are not too much into baseball or softball, although they like to play strike or catch in the yard.”

He well knows that those are priceless memories money can’t buy.

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