JOLIET – Ridge Hoopii-Haslam was on the disabled list earlier this season with a hamstring strain.
He did not like where he was mentally, so he asked Slammers manager Jeff Isom if he could watch games from the stands rather than cheering on his teammates from the dugout.
He needed to clear his head. Isom obliged.
“I was mentally weak at the time,” the Slammers’ leading hitter said. “I had to let the game come back to me. So a couple games on the road when I was on the DL, I asked Ice [Isom] if I could sit in the stands. I did and just watched the game. That slowed the game down for me, being a fan on the outside.”
Hoopii-Haslam, who hails from Hilo, Hawaii, also took advantage of a road trip that brought the Slammers to the St. Louis area.
“Kolten Wong, the Cardinals’ second baseman, is one of my best friends,” he said. “We grew up together in Hilo. His dad coached me in baseball.
“I got in touch with Kolten, and he sent an Uber to pick me up and take me to his house. I spent the night there. He fed me positive thoughts. I got to talk with Yadi Molina and Adam Wainwright, too. It was good.”
Hoopii-Haslam called the opportunity to see Wong “a blessing.”
“I hadn’t seen him in a while,” he said. “He’s the Cardinals’ go-to guy at second base and usually in the 6-hole in the lineup. He told me to make sure I keep tunnel vision with what I am doing.”
What Hoopii-Haslam is doing is hitting everything in sight. He entered Saturday night’s game against the Washington Wild Things at Slammers Stadium among the Frontier League leaders with a .352 batting average. He had 13 doubles, two triples, eight home runs and 37 RBIs, in addition to 16 stolen bases. He sported a .411 on-base percentage and .530 slugging mark for a .941 OPS.
At 5-8, 195 pounds and with the way he is hitting, Hoopii-Haslam in a sense has become a Frontier League version of Jose Altuve.
“Ridge has taken a good approach at the plate during batting practice, and that carries over to the game,” Isom said. “He always tries to hit line drives. He hits home runs by accident. He has had a very good second half of the season. He hits at the top and middle of our lineup, always in the top four. I like him right near the top with the way he runs.”
“Home runs in batting practice don’t count,” Hoopii-Haslam said of his pregame approach. “My plan is to hit everything on the line, in batting practice and the game. I try to stay locked in. I try not to give away any at-bats.”
Hoopii-Haslam began the season as the Slammers’ starting shortstop but was moved to the outfield early on.
“I love the outfield,” he said. “I told Ice I would like to stay in the outfield.”
“He has more confidence in the outfield,” Isom said. “I think that’s a big reason for his success [offensively]. He is an above-average defender in the outfield. He was not a bad shortstop, he just was not as sure of himself there.”
Hoopii-Haslam fondly recalls his formative years in the game.
Wong’s dad, Kaha Wong, played minor-league baseball for two years. He taught Kolten, his younger brother Kean Wong, who is in Triple-A in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization, and scores of other kids in Hilo how to play the game the right way.
“I’m 23, Kolten is 26,” Hoopii-Hslam said. “His little brother Kean and I are the same age. We were teammates growing up. Kolten was always around us, being the older brother. He always told us how we have to keep working.
“Kolten was a catcher and I was as well. Growing up, you showed who you are as the catcher. He [Kaha Wong] believed the best player should be the catcher.”
After college, Hoopii-Haslam played independent ball for two years with the Winnipeg Goldeyes before Isom acquired him in a trade last offseason.
“This is my third year in pro ball. I haven’t played affiliated ball yet,” he said. “I’m one of the few in our lineup who hasn’t. My dream is to be picked up. I played with guys at Winnipeg who were veterans of affiliated ball. I just sit back and see what guys like that have to say.”
Hoopii-Haslam said he enjoys being in Joliet but would like to talk with his family more.
“My family knows what I’m doing, they understand, but it’s not all good because I barely get a chance to talk to them,” he said. “Two weeks ago my grandparents and aunt and uncle visited me here. That was the first time they saw me playing pro ball. They couldn’t believe it. My grandpa keeps me on my toes, too. They were here a week.”
Seeing family members boosted his mental state, not unlike what occurred when he sat in the stands while on the DL and when he spent time with his friend from back in Hilo, Kolten Wong.
The Slammers have had their struggles, but Hoopii-Haslam has maintained the tunnel vision he hopes will land him a shot in affiliated ball.
“Just keep hitting and your time will come,” Isom said.