story and photos by Kirk Lee Aeder
Most kids on Maui grow up with surfboards tucked under their arms, but Shane Patrick Victorino always had hardball on his mind. Raised near the sugarcane fields of Wailuku, Maui, Shane and his older brother Michael Jr. played a lot of catch and hit. It was Shane though, who took it further. At 8 years old he was already playing little league ball, dreaming of one day becoming a Major League Baseball player, a lofty goal for any kid, doubly so for one coming from rural Hawai‘i. Most people said: Not a chance.
On his high school baseball team at St. Anthony’s, Shane excelled. Speed was one of his biggest assets: In 1999 he was the Hawai‘i State high school track and field champ in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. Adding to his arsenal, Shane learned to switch-hit. It wasn’t long before he drew the attention of MLB scouts; the Dodgers drafted him straight out of high school in 1999.
After four years of struggling in the minors, Shane fulfilled his dream in 2003 when he made his major league debut with the Padres, who had drafted him from the Dodgers earlier that year. The Padres management liked what they saw in Victorino, but they had too many outfielders; Shane became the odd man out. He signed a minor league contract with the Phillies and finally joined their big league club in 2005.
While Philadelphia may call itself the City of Brotherly Love, that name belies how tough its sports fans are on their home players. Expectations are high, and anyone who doesn’t measure up hears about it—quickly. As a player, though, Shane has given Philly fans everything they could have asked for: speed, power, a tremendous throwing arm and a high batting average. His 2007 statistics were career highs. The fleet and affable starting right outfielder has quickly become a favorite of Philly fans, who have dubbed him “The Flyin’ Hawaiian.”
Victorino is so popular that on Father’s Day, 2006, the Phillies honored him with a Hawaiian-themed day. His father was flown in from Maui for the game. Singer Danny Kalai sang “Tiny Bubbles” while the Philly Phanatic mascot pranced around in a grass skirt. And, oh yes, Shane just so happened to hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the tenth against San Francisco. After the game, his teammates showered him with plastic lei. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.
I caught up with Shane in San Diego in July of 2007, just before a game against his old team, the Padres. Overhearing Shane and I talking by his locker, teammate Ryan Howard kidded Shane about being from Hawai‘i. All in good fun; it was easy to see that Shane is not only a favorite of the fans, but he’s liked and respected among his fellow players as well.
How does it feel coming from such an out-of-the-way place like Maui and making it to the majors? Did you encounter obstacles that players from the Mainland don’t have to face?
It’s been an honor. There are fewer opportunities where I come from. There is a stereotype to overcome—that kids in Hawai‘i grow up surfing or do other water sports. It’s ingrained in the culture. Lately, though, there’s been a lot more opportunity for Hawai‘i players, and I am right there in the mix beside players like Kurt Suzuki (Oakland), Shane Komine (Oakland), Tyler Yates (Atlanta) and Brandon League (Toronto). There are many more currently in the minor leagues. I look forward to playing with and against them in the majors. The guys coming up now are beginning to open a lot of eyes. Scouts are seeing that there are good athletes from Hawai‘i. The more guys from Hawai‘i, the better.
Being raised on Maui, it seems amazing that you never surfed.
No, I never did. I went out bodyboarding once in a while, but I never found the love for surfing that others have. Everybody on my team even wears me out about it (laughs), saying, “If you’re from Hawai‘i, how come you don’t surf?” I just tell them I was too busy playing sports on land. Although I don’t surf, I miss being around that beautiful blue ocean. It’s an aspect of Hawai‘i that I always remember.
During the season, whether you go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, the Hawai‘i local sports shows lead off with your story nearly every night. Are you aware of the following you have back home?
(Laughs) My parents tell me about it once in a while. But I just go out there and play and don’t worry too much about what’s going on. Hopefully, I can be a role model for kids at home who one day might want to try and be like me.
Where were your favorite places to go on Maui?
Nowhere, really. Just hanging around my parents’ home, sitting on the couch with my mom and dad and talking about life and baseball. We all talked a lot about what a beautiful place we lived in; we never took it for granted. We would sit out on the balcony and look out at the ocean. I loved that feeling. Maui is one of the most beautiful places on earth to come home to.
What about your family? What did they think about your dream to play pro ball?
My dad Mike is a county councilman on Maui and is also an insurance man. My mom Joycelyn works for the ILWU. My older brother Michael Jr. is a longshoreman down at Young Brothers. When I had an opportunity to play in the minors, my parents told me: Once you set your mind on a goal, go at it 100 percent. So once I decided to play pro baseball, I went at it 100 percent. There were plenty of times when I got sent back down [to the minors], and then brought back up. But you have to keep going out there and playing without getting distressed.
Did your brother play baseball, too?
Yes. My brother has been a good role model for me, and he was a really good athlete. He started a family right out of high school and went in a different direction, staying closer to home. But he supports me, and he gets upset when I don’t do well. He’ll call me up after I’ve had a bad game and just say, “Tomorrow is another day.” I think he gets more bothered than I do when I don’t do well (laughs).
Sports fans in Philadelphia are renowned for being hard on their players. But they have really taken to you, even given you nicknames like “Muscles from Maui,” “Shane-O” and “The Flyin’ Hawaiian.” How does that make you feel?
It’s nice and fun. The fans have been good to me, for sure. Growing up in Hawai‘i, I always had little nicknames that my buddies would give me, and now when I walk around the streets of Philadelphia, to be known as “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” is really great. Though sometimes I’d rather have people use my real name (laughs).
During the 2007 season, you played well on so many levels. How satisfying has that been?
It’s been good. There’s a lot more for me to do now during a game. I’m happy with what I’ve done, even though my batting average isn’t quite where I want it to be. Like I said, you just keeping going out there playing and dedicate yourself every day and getting even better for next year.
That one game in Philly on Father’s Day last season against the Giants could not have gone better.
It was funny how everything happened on that day. My dad was in the stands after flying in for the game from Maui. The Phillies staff thought it would be fun to make it an all-Hawaiian theme that day. I got lucky and just happened to hit the game-winning home run. It was great to see the fans embrace the Hawaiian theme.
You had other amazing highlights during the 2007 season, but one in particular stood out—your wild attempt to catch a foul ball in Colorado by hurling yourself several rows deep into the stands.
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess that was just the way my dad always told me to hustle as a kid—never give up on anything. Always keep hustling until the play is over. I was just trying to make a play and thought I still had a chance. I wasn’t thinking about where I was going to end up. When I saw the replay, I realized maybe it wasn’t a very smart play. But at the time, getting the out was the most important thing.
Have you seen the Shane Victorino Bobble-head?
Yeah, that thing is pretty funny. They even had me in a hula skirt. I thought it was great.
You display a lot of positive energy when you’re on the field, always smiling. Are you really having fun out there?
Definitely. When you play 150 games a year, you have to have a passion for the game. Otherwise, the game will overcome you and get you so frustrated that it makes it even tougher to play. I love what I do, even if I have a bad game. If I go 0-for-5 tonight, I can still help my team out by playing good defense, then show up tomorrow and have a better day. If you love what you do, you keep doing it. The drive to be successful is where it all comes from. That’s just me.
Later that afternoon, it was vintage Victorino: three hits, three RBIs and two runs as the Phillies trounced the Padres, 9-0. A few weeks later, Shane injured his leg during a game and sat out several weeks. He returned to the lineup just before the end of the season and helped lead the Phillies to the Eastern Division title, their first since 1993, and into the playoffs. Despite missing nearly two months, his statistics were still the best of his career: a .281 batting average, twelve home runs, forty-six RBIs and thirty-seven stolen bases. He is ticketed to become the starting center fielder for the Phillies in 2008. HH