Ka’ai Tom, A Calmness of Focus for Hillcats

The Cleveland Indians made Ka’ai Tom a 5th round selection in 2015. He is one of two native Hawaiians on the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats roster, along with fellow Hawaiian outfielder Connor Marabell.

Baseball in Hawaii has a long tradition. Over 40 players from Hawaii have donned a Major League uniform – names that include Charlie Hough, Mike Lum, Kolten Wong, and Shane Victorino. Tom hopes to join that list of players someday. Like many players he got his love of baseball through his family.

“My dad, my grandpa, my uncle, all played baseball,” said Tom, “so it was kind of born into me, to carry on the family tradition of playing baseball.”

His given name is Blaze Ka’ai Tom. Of course there is a marvelous family story that goes with this name. It had to do with a family trip to Las Vegas while his mother was pregnant with him.

“Hawaiian’s call it [Las Vegas] the ninth island because everyone from Hawaii goes there,” said Tom. “My family was playing Blazing 7’s, a slot machine, and they were hitting the jackpots. My mom, after winning a few, went to my dad and said ‘I found a name for our new son: Blaze’.”

Blaze, or Ka’ai, is the youngest of four siblings. He followed his two older brothers, Jordan and Kainoa, into baseball. He also has a sister, Mari. Three generations of Toms have played ball at the collegiate level. His grandfather played for Oregon, his father at Washington State, his brother Jordan at Oregon State, and his brother Kainoa for Hartnel Junior College. Ka’ai got his start in college at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, before moving on to Kentucky.

“We played summer ball at the end of the year,” said Tom. “I was up in New York and that was where the Kentucky recruiting coordinator saw me. They needed one more, so I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Being in the right place at the right time got him an opportunity to transfer to Kentucky, and likely improved his chance at being drafted.

He played two years for the Wildcats before getting selected by Cleveland in 2015. He signed the same summer and reported to Mahoning Valley of the New York Penn League to begin his professional baseball career.

As a collegiate player, his signature talent was hitting. In three years playing college baseball, his lowest batting average was .328. This garnered him First Team All-SEC honors in 2014. His collegiate on-base percentage never ended below .414, and he scored 127 runs as a collegiate player in 162 games played. For comparison, Mike Trout scored 123 runs in 159 games to lead the Major Leagues in 2016.

Both Tom’s father and grandfather coached baseball when Ka’ai was growing up, and this influenced his hitting. A 5’9” 185 lb. left-handed hitter, he has an unusual batting stance. He stands nearly upright in the batter’s box, holding the bat back with the barrel pointed straight up.

“I think it’s just what I’ve learned from my dad,” he said about his hitting style and success. “My father and brothers taught me about being very simple, very calm. Control your breathing and have a good mindset, an idea about what you want to do, before you get into the box.”

As a professional, his stats have not been as eye-popping as his college record. There are always adjustments to make as the level of competition increases, learning to adapt to using a wooden bat over the aluminum models used at the college level, or adjusting to higher quality, more consistent pitchers.

In the one full season he has played at Mahoning Valley, Tom hit .283 with a .374 on-base percentage and .403 slugging. In 258 at-bats, he earned 33 walks and scored 38 runs while racking up 104 total bases – a very respectable start to his professional baseball career.

In 2016, he only played in 28 games for the Low-A Lake County Captains. This year, he is getting back into the baseball routine and is working hard to re-establish himself as a name to be recognized in the Cleveland farm system. He has daily routines to get prepared for games and to work on improving his performance.

“I’m just kind of refining my skills, a muscle memory kind of thing,” said Tom. “I loosen up, warm up, then hit a couple of rounds off the tee to feel my swing before I get into it. I’m trying to stay balanced, stay cool and collected, and hope that translates over onto the field.”

Tom has a family connection to a recent and well-known Hawaiian player, Shane Victorino.

“My grandpa coached Little League and had him as a player,” said Tom. “He said there was just something special about him, something very special and energetic.”

With this kind of family connection and a solid grounding in fundamentals, it gives Tom a sense of what it will take to reach the Major Leagues. It also provides another great story.

“One time Shane was not paying attention, so my grandfather was getting upset. He told him to run around [sending Shane to do laps]. After a long time, when practice was over, someone asked my grandfather who that was running around. He said ‘That’s Shane’. He had totally forgotten about him.” Tom tells this story with a smile. He knows that Victorino had talent, but also learned to value discipline in order to reach the Majors.

Ka’ai himself got a small taste of the Majors when he got to play in five spring training games with the Indians.

“It’s awesome to experience what it is like to be a big leaguer for a few hours,” said Tom about his spring training game appearances. “Being around Tito, Yan Gomes, and others. Being able to feel what it is like. It absolutely helps you keep your eye on the prize.”

The Hillcats have opened the 2017 season splitting their wins and losses to reach an 8-9 record. As he adjusts to the higher level of play at the High-A level he continues to put in the work that he knows will lead to better performance. At this point in his life and his career, he is just enjoying the opportunity to go out every day and put on the uniform and do what he loves.

“People have different ways of thinking about these things,” he says regarding his time in baseball, “but for me I’m so happy and so grateful for this opportunity. Something you dream about as a kid, but you never know if it’s going to happen.”

Ka’ai Tom is living his dream. As his skills develop and his performance improves, he will continue to get opportunities to pursue the pinnacle of that dream, a career in the Major Leagues.

Photo: Lee Luther Jr./The News and Advance

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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