Acknowledging the rarity of descendants of American Samoa choosing a bat and glove in lieu of pads and a helmet, the Indiana native and self proclaimed “half-Samoan-half-Hoosier” sat down for a Q&A.
Question: How does it feel to be one of few Samoans, and Polynesians even, to take a major-league diamond?
“It’s crazy, you know. I went and visited American Samoa in 2014, just me my mom and dad. I wish my brother could have gone, but he had just enlisted in the Navy so he wasn’t able to make it. When I got there, I was talking to family members and they only knew of one other Samoan baseball player (Tolia “Tony” Solaita) who made it to the bigs. So, to me, that’s a huge deal. I love being part Samoan. I don’t really know all the intricacies of the Samoan culture, but I’m definitely wanting to learn.”
Q: It’s a cliche question, but it has to be asked. Polynesian people are kind of know for that warrior spirit. Does that mindset help you at all as a baseball player?
A: “Yeah. I mean, you have to have that warrior mindset, you know. you’re going to have those days when you’re not at your best. Its tough, you know, it’s a long season and you’re going through all the ups and downs. You’re going to go through some stretches when you’re not doing as well as you want to be. So having that warrior mindset is crucial. It helps — it has been there ever since I was a little kid. I’ve always wanted to go out and throw the baseball. It’s set in my mind. If something is not going well — it has really been huge for me and I feel like it does come from the Polynesian side of me.
“There’s a story. When I was in seventh or eighth grade, we had to write out (on a piece of paper) what we wanted to be when we were older and give it to our teachers — I think it was the entire sixth, seventh and eighth grade. You know, I wrote down that I wanted to be a baseball player. And my History-Geography teacher took it, and he looked at it, and he was like, ‘you’re going to have to write something else, because I’ve seen you play before and you’re not that good, so I’m going to need you to write something else.’ I took it back and I was like, ‘whatever, man’ (*gesturing with the crumpling of paper motion*). From that moment on I’ve wanted nothing more than to prove this guy wrong. that’s also part of that warrior mindset. I’m dead-set on proving everyone wrong. It’s in there (*pointing to his chest*). I try not to show it, when I’m out there on the mound, but it’s definitely in there.”
Q: Is that teacher, and other naysayers, something you think about often?
A: “Yeah. I’ve definitely thought about it a lot. Especially when I was in college. I wasn’t really highly recruited out of high school. I got to Indiana State (University), and the first year was kind of rough — I didn’t really know what I was doing. Second year, I had my ups and downs and I started question if I wanted to keep pursuing it, or focus on school work. Then I started to do a little better, and every time I would look down and think maybe I should try something different, I would think about him. I kind of think about it a lot.”
Q: You said you have to put a harness on the emotion — the Samoan ferocity — is there ever any time when you’re on the mound and you can feel it bubbling?
A: “When things are going well, I have that ‘no one is going to get a hit off me’ mindset. Like everything is going well, and no one will touch me — I have that ferocity, that passion. When things aren’t going well, I need to learn to harness it more. Some times I’ll get down on myself, and it’s hard to get out of my head. But it’s in there and I can use it to stay level, instead of having big ups-and-downs. Some times, when people get on base, it kind of takes over and I’m like ‘you guys are not going to score.’ I’m going to get these next two or three hitters out, what ever it is. It’s something that has been with me for a really long time.”
Q: Is there any idol you had as an athlete growing up?
A: “Johan Santana. When I was growing up, any time he was starting I was looking on TV trying to find a channel that he was on. I loved the way he pitched. And everything he did he did with that calm attitude. He had that same you’re-not-going-to-score-on-me attitude. That was my guy, growing up. It kind of stinks, how his career ended, but in his prime he was unhittable.”
Q: Three-quarter release, fastball-slider-changeup guy. Did you use him as more of model than just an idol?
A: “Oh yeah. When I was younger I was always trying to mimic him. I didn’t really have a changeup until about two years ago, didn’t start throwing a slider until I was like a junior or senior in high school, but he was the guy I tried to model my (pitching) after.”
Q: You said before that the first time you went to American Samoa was in 2014, to visit family. From where in American Samoa does your family hail?
A: “Pago Pago. My dad is from Laulii. The island is pretty tiny, but there’s only one road and the speed limit is like 20 MPH. So, to get from the airport to where he grew up, it took like 35 minutes. That was so awesome, going there and getting to see my cousins for the first time. Getting to see where my dad grew up — my cousin still lives in the same house he grew up in.”
Q: Not a lot of baseball fields out there, huh?
A: “No. I saw one. I didn’t see the field itself at all, I just saw the outfield fence. I got asked to talk to some (baseball players), but regrettably I wasn’t able to. With all the stuff I was doing with family, I didn’t have time. But next time I go over there, I definitely plan to be more active in that scene.”
Q: Are you hoping to develop a pipeline for Samoan baseball?
A: “I hope so. I know there is going to be some ball players, but football is the big sport out there.”
Q: We’re starting to see more Polynesians in baseball, former A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki and current Texas Rangers reliever Keone Kela obviously come to mind. Is now the time for Polynesian baseball to expand?
A: “Sam Tuivailala, he’s with the (St. Louis) Cardinals (along with Kolten Wong). He’s been up and down, but he is Tongan. A guy that I got drafted the same year with Amalani Fukofuka, he’s also Tongan. He’s with the (Kansas City) Royals. Also, Peter Tago, with the (Chicago) White Sox. He’s Samoan. Peter and I actually got asked to play for — they were going to set up a Samoan National Baseball Team for the World Baseball Classic. They didn’t end up getting enough players to do it, but it would have been pretty cool.”
Q: When did your dad move to the states?
A: “He was 19 or 20. He moved to Hawaii, then he fought in Vietnam. After that, he went to Indiana and met his first wife. They had my half-brother David. They got divorced, then he met my mom and had my brother and me.”
Q: So you have one brother and one half-brother?
A: “Yeah. My half-brother was a big part of my life too, growing up. My dad would always take me to go visit him, when I was younger — me and my brother.”
Q: Was that extended-family group part of the 22-person contingent you had here for your big-league debut?
A: “No, unfortunately, they weren’t able to make it. but, when we go to Chicago, I assume I’m going to have a lot of people that are going to be there. Basically my whole mom’s side of the family, David and his family, they’re all like a half-hour away from Chicago, so they’re going to be there for that series.”