Octogenarian Coach Back On The Field

I recently received the most wonderful email from a MidWeek reader. Lee Hanta, a former baseball player at Kaiser High and then later at Louisiana Tech, wrote to me about his father, who at age 83 is back on the diamond coaching again.

“It’s the first time in more than 25 years; he’s helping to coach my daughter’s club fastpitch softball team,” Lee Hanta says. “He comes out to every practice and on the field, not the safest thing for an 83-year-old, teaching these young 13 to 16-year-old ladies the fundamentals of playing ball. I haven’t seen that glimmer in his eyes since (he was) coaching me in American Legion almost 30 years ago, when we won regionals.”

Carlton Hanta says, “It’s a second chance.”

I caught up with the former Japan League star after practice in Hawaii Kai, where he helps coach the Strikers softball club. His 16-year-old granddaughter Ani is a pitcher and third baseman on the team.

“I got interested in women’s softball by watching the UH Wahine,” he says. “I’m here to help with fundamentals and the mental part of the game. I’m seeing some potential.”

Many of the young players may not realize just how privileged they are to work with the elder Hanta. His baseball resume is quite impressive: He was an all-star player at Mid-Pacific back in the late 1940s, and then despite being only 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, went on to become an All-American shortstop at the University of Houston in the early ’50s. Several years ago, he was inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame.

“Everywhere I went, I was the little guy,” he says, “so I had to make up for it in other ways.”

Hanta led Houston to a spot in its first-ever College World Series, and then played Minor League professional ball in Texas. In the late ’50s, he signed a contract to play in Japan’s Major League, where he helped lead the Nankai Hawks to the championship. He was a player and coach in Japan until the 1970s.

“I learned early to never (talk about) your opponent. If you respect them too much, you could be afraid of them,” he says. “You have to respect them off the field — but on the field, you have to be confident that you are better.”

Hanta teaches his life lessons and fundamentals to his young team.

“I’m very thankful to the coaching staff for allowing me to be out here,” he says. “It’s so fun to see the kids get better, have fun and smile.”

Hanta also is thankful to have this “second chance.”

“I’m a two-time cancer survivor,” he says. “I had Hodgkin’s disease that ended my baseball career. About 16-18 years ago, I had bladder cancer.

“People say life is short, but they don’t really know until they’re told they have six months to live,” he adds, noting that it’s “pure luck” that he’s still around.

He works with his young players on areas he calls “the simple things: how to properly pick up a ground ball, using your footwork and employing speed,” he says. “Every extra step you take, you give your opponent an extra step. There are always going to be players bigger or taller; you have to out-think them.

“The good Lord has given me a chance to help young kids play ball,” he says. “I’m enjoying it.”

It’s a second chance that all the Strikers and all of us who greatly respect Carlton Hanta’s fighting spirit are enjoying, too.