Jake Kahaulelio had to be talked into returning to baseball this season. Now the Wingnuts second baseman can’t imagine ever being talked out of it.
Kahaulelio briefly retired during the offseason, sending the Wingnuts scrambling for a player who probably had little chance of matching Kahaulelio’s production and importance. Once personal issues that forced Kahaulelio from the game were resolved, he thought about coming back.
It took a conversation with former Wingnuts infielder Patrick Brooks to turn those thoughts into actions. Kahaulelio took Brooks’ words to heart and opted to return to Wichita, where he won the American Association batting title by hitting .372 and formed an exciting double-play combination with Ryan Khoury.
"He just pointed out, ‘You’re not done,’ ” Kahaulelio said of his conversation with Brooks, his longtime friend but never a teammate in Wichita. "I was going to move on. I was trying to get this job, like a career job, and he sat me down and had a real long talk with me and opened my eyes. I looked at it, and this is my passion."
Talking to Brooks got Kahaulelio to 99 percent readiness for a return, but there was still some uncertainty becuase Kahaulelio had become used to the idea of not playing. The other one percent was covered when Kahaulelio played in a junior-college alumni game and discovered that the desire to play — not just the desire to want to play — was still there.
Kahaulelio re-signed with the Wingnuts as a stabilizing force — his high batting average will play anywhere in the lineup but his ability to draw walks and hit for doubles is perfect for the No. 2 spot in which he resides. His return meant Wichita no longer had to scramble for his replacement.
"Having four months off, it was tough to get back," Kahaulelio said. "But the mental thing, I have it there. Mentally, I know I can do it. I pushed myself in training a little bit harder this year to get ready, and I came to spring training ready to go. I went to Utah to train with (Khoury) and his speed guy and they beat me up pretty bad there, but it was all worth it."
Simply coming back to baseball wouldn’t have had the same effect as coming back to the Wingnuts, where a superior chemistry was established last season that helped them reach the league championship series.
Kahaulelio, who reached Double-A during his four seasons in the Cincinnati Reds organization, left the Wingnuts in the middle of last season for a month-long stint in the Mexican League.
It bumped up Kahaulelio’s salary, and playing in a league listed as a Triple-A equivalent alongside former major league players offered Kahaulelio increased exposure, but it wasn’t as meaningful to him as playing with the tightly bonded Wingnuts.
"When I came out and made the decision to go to Mexico, I was doing it for my family," Kahaulelio said. "I’ve never played baseball for money, but for the first time in my life I could get a step ahead. If I can only go there for a month and get some cash to help my family out, that’s what I need to do.
"This year, it’s not about money. I’m committed to the Wingnuts unless I get picked up by an affiliated team. That’s obviously my dream, to get to the big leagues. Otherwise, this is going to be my home for as long as I know."
Kahaulelio changing his mind was a reversal of fortunes for the Wingnuts, who saw six players hang it up after last season. Kahaulelio believes they wanted to go out on top.
"I was one of those guys," Kahaulelio said. "I was the first one to admit that I wasn’t coming back, and then it was a trickle effect. Because of what we had last year, you can’t just have that again. That will be that year, and that’s why people are OK to leave it and be OK with it. I just have that itch."
Continuity will be restored, among other ways, by Kahaulelio and Khoury reforming arguably the league’s most reliable double-play duo, one that might be able to survive at the higher levels of affiliated baseball.
Kahaulelio and Khoury almost had no choice but to become close friends because they had instant chemistry on the field, which they used to turn one double play more quickly than the previous. From the top two spots in the batting order, they also make the offense go.
And they share the same goals as players who have reached the upper levels of the minor leagues and have shown advanced skills for the independent game.
"You could do all your individual accomplishments all you want," Kahaulelio said. "...This year it’s about, if I have to sacrifice myself or anything to make the team win, that’s what I’m going to do. Whether I do the same thing I did last year or I can help them in a different way, I’m all for the team. I want to bring home a championship this year."