Ezra Heleski’s Day on the Mound

You and your heart shouldn’t feel so far apart . . . – Jack Johnson’s You and Your Heart

I was glued to my television screen for the last few weeks while the Little League World Series played itself out. Listening to Jack Johnson’s voice as he sang the theme song became a permanent fixture in my day. And, the kids from Hawaii slid their way into my heart.

As many of you know, I am from Hawaii. It’s where I have lived the longest and where I spent most of my childhood. I haven’t been back in eight years, but not a day goes by where I don’t miss digging my toes into the sand while writing poetry to the sound of waves softly crashing to shore.

Best of Three vs. Georgia
After losing their first game to Georgia 6-2 (against the best pitcher in the LLWS, Jacob Pate, who consistently throws over 100 mph after MLB conversion), Hawaii battled elimination every game thereafter. Their subsequent run through the tournament, including having to play Georgia two more times (and facing Pate once more), was inspiring and gripping.

They hung seven runs on Pate en route to a 12-5 comeback win. In turn, Thomas (friend from high school) and I decided to go to Williamsport, PA to watch the U.S. Championship game.

You Need Tickets?!
When we got there on Saturday, we discovered that you needed tickets to get into the stadium. I went as a fan, not a journalist, so I failed to do the logistical research. People had been lining up since 6am to obtain a ticket.

We sat under a covered area with a television screen to watch the Chinese Taipei vs. Japan game. An elderly woman wearing a powder blue West t-shirt next to me kept turning her head toward me and smiling. I finally asked if she was from Hawaii. She turned out to be Ezra Heleski’s grandmother.

The grandparents were friendly, kind, and so happy to be there. They hadn’t been home since before the regionals, but that didn’t matter – their grandson was the starting pitcher in the U.S. Championship. After the last win against Georgia, both grandparents had cried.

The Aloha Spirit
When I finally met Ezra’s mom, Grace, it was evident that she was the daughter of her parents. Grace encompassed everything that represented Hawaii – the aloha spirit, a fierce (but gentle) protectiveness over her ‘ohana (Hawaiian for family), and a big heart filled with generosity.

Her warmth was infectious. Even after years of living in New York City, her openness immediately transported me back to the islands where strangers say “Eh, brah, howzit?” to each other in passing. Thomas said afterward, “It makes me so happy to be around locals again.”

Grace asked us how we got tickets to the game. I told her that we didn’t have tickets because we didn’t know that you needed tickets. She said, “Hang on.”

When she came back, she had two tickets in her hand. We were dumbfounded and almost speechless. Thomas and I stumbled our way into Lamade still feeling light-headed about Grace’s kindness. Our seats were fantastic and the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement.

Heleski’s Dominant Pitching
Ezra, a lefty who didn’t throw a single pitch in the regionals and only pitched a few innings in relief at Williamsport, was poised and in complete control. After watching his two appearances prior to Saturday’s game, I was already impressed with his breaking ball and the movement of his pitches as the ball crossed the plate.

Grace had said that she didn’t think Ezra was going to get selected for the 13-player Waipio All-Star team because the talent pool was so deep. Not only did Ezra make the team, he was making the biggest start of his life in front of 29,000 fans and millions of people watching at home.

All he did was throw a five-inning complete game shutout. He only gave up two hits and a walk while striking out six. Hawaii beat Texas 10-0 with the game ending due to the 10-run mercy rule.

The Little Engines That Could
Afterward, we mingled with the players and families in front of the players’ residence compound. The pure joy and emotion on everyone’s faces cannot be described. The high that Thomas and I felt left us both giddy and reflective on the drive back.

Although Hawaii lost in the LLWS Championship game on Sunday to Japan 4-1, the heart that they fought with throughout the tournament could not make the islands prouder. They set a LLWS record for the most games played at seven and almost brought back two titles in three years for the Waipio Little League.

Grace said to us in the end, “We’ll always share this moment together. Thank you so much for being a part of this.”

No, Grace, thank you for letting us be a part of it.

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