Winning One For Ben
Playing to honor their late coach Ben Naki, a Honolulu softball team wins the over-50 world softball title
When men pass the age of 50, they usually define victory differently than they did in their younger years -things such as urinating without pain or winning a two-dollar greenie off their golf buddies. The trappings of their accomplishments are likely to come in the form of a gold watch from the company or that first pension check in the mail.
But such is not the case for the men of Family Stone softball. They instead celebrated on the mound in Las Vegas like so many Little Leaguers, and their reward came in the form of a World Series ring after winning the 2012 World Masters Softball tournament, and in undefeated fashion.
So just as we celebrate our Little Leaguers succeeding on an international stage, so too we cheer these old boys and their world title.
For those who don’t follow middle-aged amateur softball closely, the World Masters is the preeminent tournament in the sport, drawing hundreds of teams from more than a dozen states and Guam to compete. The Family Stone competed in the toughest, youngest and most highly contested division in the tournament (AAA) and bested a field of 49 teams by winning eight straight games.
In fact, the only inning they trailed in was the final one of the championship game when they took a four-run deficit into the bottom half of the frame and made two quick outs before hanging a five spot on the opposition, highlighted by a three-run homer by first baseman and Wells Fargo mortgage senior vice president Tom McCarthy.
“I have played on a lot of teams, and this was by far the most rewarding experience I have ever had in athletics,” says McCarthy, which is saying something considering he played football for UH and had a cup of coffee in the NFL. “Everybody had the same goal, everybody had the same attitude toward whether they were playing or not.”
Maintaining this positive outlook was a product of former Family Stone first baseman-turned-coach Rudy Cagulada. Because of recent neck surgery, he was relegated to the bench, but rather than mope about riding the pine, he took it as his chance to lead the team, and for his players, his leadership made all the difference.
“Last year we had some players who weren’t all in, had attitude issues or whatever,” says Percy Ihara, a reverse mortgage specialist for Financial Freedom who was on the team that finished third in last year’s tournament. “This year everybody bought in, nobody had issues, and Rudy gave us a good balance of demeanor by not getting mad or over-anxious. It made a big difference.”
While his placid persona aided in allaying frayed nerves on the bench, coaching is not just about what happens between the white lines. They were in Vegas after all, and keeping a pack of local boys focused on softball and not The Strip is no small task.
“These guys were pretty good. I walked all the casinos and I never saw anyone on the tables – you could see their commitment,” says Cagulada, with one notable exception.
Their soon-to-be MVP shortstop, Craig Ayala, arrived in Vegas a day early with his wife in order to celebrate their long-delayed honeymoon on the Ninth Island. In their first game Ayala hit a home run and then collapsed with cramps 10 feet down the first baseline. The team extorted him to get up and round the bases but Ayala appeared to be confused at what to do next.
“Afterward he apologized to me said, ‘Sorry, Coach, I went and drank kinda plenty last night!’” says Cagulada with a laugh. “So I told him, now you know, you gotta take care of yourself and drink a lot of water.”
The team learned from Ayala’s example, kept their focus and showed their balance, with 11 of their 12 players hitting home runs during the weekend. Their offensive outburst allowed them to overcome a defense that left them 13th out of the 14 teams in runs allowed.
So how does a team from a tiny island state with only a handful of teams that field players over 50 beat the nation’s best, where many of the Mainland teams do nothing but tour and compete?
It is their very lack of peers that is the Family Stone’s secret to success.
“We don’t get to play against a lot of over-50 people, so we have to play all the young teams out here, and that prepped us to play well against those top-shape teams from the Mainland,” says Brad Eisen, outfielder and general manager at Cutter Chevrolet. “The young guys don’t like losing to us old guys, but they do, every week!”
The Family Stone team has been around for decades, the original team being named after the Family Store in Kailua back in the ’70s, but because of an error at the printer the name was forever changed to a name we associate more with Sly than Windward-side manapuas.
The founder of the team was Ben Naki, who passed in 2010, but his hand was felt on the team as it was he who helped assemble most of the talent, and it was in his honor that they competed in the Nevada desert heat.
“We played for Ben, he was our heart and soul,” says Eisen. “The last five or six years he was scouting us as players for this team, waiting for us to get old enough for this team, and in his dream he knew he was going to have a team that could win this.”
Now that they have achieved Naki’s goal they have a new task ahead of them: playing in the Majors. The Majors is the top level in senior softball, and competing will require an even larger commitment from these men and, by extension, their families.
“At a certain point, my wife said you got to give up either softball or golf, I immediately said golf,” says McCarthy. “She then wanted to know why I didn’t want to think about it, and I said it was easy, I can play golf when I get old.”
For now, it would seem, age is only a number if you are a Family Stone.