By CHRIS KOMAI, Special to The Rafu
Most sports fans understand that the challenges for any young man or woman to achieve a career in professional sports are numerous and often unforgiving. But some of the toughest hurdles are the perceptions or misperceptions that certain scouts may hold involving a prospect’s size, character, background or even ethnicity.
Keston Hiura heard that he had a perceived weakness that had nothing to do with his baseball abilities, but instead focused on his overall priorities: the fact that he intended to graduate from college. “Someone told my father that some scouts felt it was an issue that Asian Americans go to college to get an education,” Hiura related.
In an age of specialization where expectations for success require cutting off all side activities, this point of view might make sense. But for Keston’s father Kirk, who is Sansei, and mother Janice, who is Chinese American, this notion that working to earn a college degree was a distraction or even a detriment to Keston’s baseball career went against the grain of their culture and how they raised their son.
The happy ending to this story is that Keston was well on his way to earning his degree at UC Irvine when the Milwaukee Brewers used their 2017 first-round pick, the ninth overall choice, to draft Hiura after his junior year. Because of the nature of the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft, the Hiura family was advised that Keston would actually be paid more after his junior year since he still had the option to return to school for his senior year.
As the ninth player in the draft (and the highest pick of a Japanese American in MLB history), Keston signed with the Brewers for over $4 million, which Milwaukee was happy to pay. According to Brewers scout Wynn Pelzer, “(He was) the best college hitter in the country (in 2017). That’s what he showed all through the spring. It was a pleasure for me as a scout to go watch the guy perform offensively. He’s a premium bat at a premium position, and he’s going to be valuable for the Brewers down the road.”
For the Anteaters in his junior year, Hiura hit .442 with a 1.260 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and knocked out eight home runs. He also walked more (50) than he struck out (38). So clearly, attending class and studying towards his degree did not interfere with Keston’s development as a baseball player. In keeping with his values, Keston declared, “At some point, I want to get my degree.”
Having clear priorities and the right attitude were important for Keston because being a first-round draft choice did not guarantee him a roster spot with the Brewers. Unlike the NFL or the NBA, top prospects almost never play in the major leagues right away. A study by Baseball America covering the years 1981 to 2010 and cited by the Athletic noted that only 17.6 percent of players drafted ever play with a major league team.
Hiura was assigned to the Arizona rookie league and then progressed to a low A league in Wisconsin. The Brewers had him come to spring training in 2018 before assigning him to a high A league and then promoted him to AA in Biloxi, Miss. Conditions at this level of professional baseball are difficult. There are long bus rides, cheap motels and limited food options. “It’s a tough lifestyle,” Hiura explained.
The key, he noted, was to “stay determined, stay focused. Challenge yourself to be the best you can be.” Keston understood that if he could “hit AA (pitching), it would show what kind of player you are.”
His progression continued in 2019 when he again was part of the Brewers’ spring training before being sent to the AAA club at San Antonio. He actually got his first hit at this level off of Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw, who was rehabilitating in the minor leagues. Hiura hit .333 with an on-base percentage (hits plus walks) of .408 and a slugging percentage of .698 with 11 home runs and 26 runs batted in.
The last obstacle for Hiura to reach the majors was finding an open position. The Brewers are a play-off team and there weren’t any available spots until infielder Travis Shaw was injured. Kirk remembered getting a late-night telephone call from Keston and immediately worried that his son had gotten hurt. Instead, Keston told his father that he was being called up to play for the Brewers for a series in Philadelphia. Kirk and Janice booked an early morning flight from LAX and made it to the first game. They also traveled to Milwaukee, where they were introduced to the Brewer staff and got a tour of the facility. “They treated us well,” Kirk said.
Keston showed he was ready. He got two hits in his first game, which demonstrated he wasn’t overwhelmed by the big stage. In 17 games, Hiura batted .281, slugged five home runs and drove in nine runs. In a game against the Pirates, Keston delivered a game-tying two-run home run in the Brewers’ last at-bat.
But when Shaw returned, Hiura was sent back to AAA. “They told me when Shaw is healthy, I’d be sent back down,” he explained.
However, Shaw never regained his form and the Brewers released him. The Brewers brought Keston back and just in time for him to become the July National League Rookie of the Month. In 25 games, Hiura hit .355 with an on-base percentage of .429 and slugging percentage of .699. He cracked six home runs and drove in 18. For 2019, Keston hit .303 with 19 home runs, 49 runs batted in and his OPS was .938. He was selected to Baseball America’s 2019 All-Rookie team.
Set to start at second base this season (“Second base is always where I saw myself,” Keston said), Hiura knows he needs to work on his fielding (he made 16 errors last season). But hard work is at the core of his progression from high school to college to the minor leagues and now in the major leagues. At each level, Keston rarely started at the top, but with good coaching and attention to detail, he got better and better.
He comes from a family that loves sports. Kirk and his siblings Steve, Cathy and Doug all played Japanese American community sports growing up. Keston’s grandfather Clarence, an avid sports fan, ran a pharmacy in Eagle Rock, but always came out to see his kids play. Kirk earned his pharmacy degree from USC and followed in his father’s footsteps. He and Janice settled in Santa Clarita, from where they involved Keston in Japanese American community basketball on the San Fernando Timberwolves team at age 7.
“Growing up, I loved basketball,” Keston recalled.
All of Keston’s cousins also played sports and he played on a travel basketball team. Kirk recalled, “He was quick.” Still, it eventually dawned on Keston that “I wasn’t so tall.” He then became more serious about baseball. In order to improve, they reached out to a local baseball instructor Sean Thompson. But he was in such demand, they had to wait a year for him to free up his time.
According to Kirk, Thompson was more than just a hitting coach. “He talked to all of his students,” Kirk explained. “He taught Keston baseball and the importance of a higher IQ. It was important to have a plan.” Added Keston, “He wanted me to understand the game and the mental side. How am I going to improve my swing?”
Keston credits his parents for not interfering with Thompson’s coaching. “Some parents want their sons to just be better hitters,” he said. “My parents let Sean decide.”
Kirk advised his son to be patient in his development. “I was always able to hit for average,” Keston noted, but he lacked power when he entered high school. During his junior and senior years, his body matured and he began lifting weights under the guidance of Mike Yudin. Keston’s power numbers went up and opposing teams began pitching around him.
Because of his late development, Keston had very few offers to play baseball in college. He was prepared to walk on when veteran college baseball coach Mike Gillespie of UCI came calling. Gillespie, who coached baseball for 20 years at USC before coming to Irvine, remembered, “Virtually everybody missed on that guy (Keston).”
As with Thompson, Keston learned a lot from Gillespie. “He taught Keston old-school baseball,” Kirk observed. Added Keston, “(Gillespie) stressed the little things that win games. Attention to detail. They (UCI coaching staff) prepared me to play pro ball.”
His biggest issue was his right elbow, which he injured in the spring of 2016 and reinjured in November. Fortunately, he could be the designated hitter for the Anteaters and was such a threat that he was chosen to Team USA, which had a limited roster. “To be kept on a team that only has 12 position players and you’re unable to play defense is a testimony to what he did as a hitter,” said Gillespie.
It also explained why the Brewers were willing to use their first-round draft pick on him. Keston moved to Arizona, just 30 minutes from the Brewers’ spring training facility. Now a starter, he was disappointed there was not the usual opening day. The other disappointment is that his grandfather never got to see him play in the majors.
Clarence suffered from kidney cancer, but came to Keston’s high school games in a wheelchair. He famously carried newspaper clippings of his grandchildren’s athletic achievements and never hesitated to share them with strangers. But he passed away in 2014 and so never saw Keston’s breakthroughs in college and the pros.
“Dad’s favorite number was nine and he had nine grandchildren,” Kirk revealed. “Keston was the ninth pick in the draft. He hit .442 (bringing to mind the famed Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team from World War II). God has a plan for him.”
Ultimately, Kirk is glad his father involved his children in Japanese American community sports and that he and Janice did likewise for Keston and their daughter Lindsay. He noted that Keston has expressed a desire to stay connected to the community. “The Japanese American community is tight-knit,” Kirk said.
What does Keston remember his father telling him about being Nikkei? “The Hiura name is not very common,” Keston recalled. “Don’t embarrass the family name.”