Successful sports teams often have a veteran that young players can look up to and learn from, whether it’s how handle a play on the infield or a situation off the field.
Sunao Taketa serves that role for the Kona Warriors softball team. The difference is that Taketa isn’t mentoring teens or young adults. The 88-year-old is counseling younger teammates who are retirees and senior citizens.
“He’s my inspiration,” said Boss Hanato, a 72-year-old who serves as the Warriors player/coach. “Everybody respects him.”
That includes teammates as well as players on other teams in the Kupuna Softball League. Twenty-four teams gathered at Old Kona Airport Park on Wednesday for the start of the two-day Hawaii County Softball Tournament.
As he usually is, the 88-year-old Taketa was behind the plate as the Warriors took on Tsunami.
“He’s a starter in every game we play,” Hanato said.
Taketa has been playing in the league since 1991, when he retired from his work in the farming industry. Prior to that he played in a community league.
“During my younger days, I used to play shortstop, third base,” Taketa said. “Those days, they made you play any position. You have to play any position just in case a guy gets hurt, you can replace him.”
That versatility enables him to help the younger players in the league.
“I just enjoy it,” Taketa said. “I just enjoy playing. I try to help the other people with mistakes they make. Everybody is not perfect. They have to begin someplace.”
That “someplace” is age 55 for some players in the league, but each team can only field one 55-year-old male and the rest must be 60 or older.
Bill Santos, a 70-year-old who has been out of the league for the past three years because of a medical condition, said that Taketa serves as his inspiration to return to the diamond.
“He’s my hero!” Santos said. “I look up to him all the time.”
Santos, who was at the park to cheer on his former teammates, said that Taketa shared his knowledge of the game during their time together.
“He teaches me,” Santos said. “He’s a catcher and I was a pitcher at the time. We’d confer on what kind of pitching I should do and he’d instruct me on how to do it. Actually, we developed signals and that’s how I’d pitch. We were a good team together.”
Taketa said he experiences some leg and ankle problems, but he’s still able to participate as a catcher, a position that doesn’t take the physical toll on the body in slow-pitch softball as it does in fast-pitch and baseball. He is replaced by a pinch runner when he reaches base — as he did via a third-inning walk against Tsunami on Wednesday — and he might not have the mobility that he once did, but he’s got a simple answer for why he continues to do it.
“The fun,” he said. “I like the sport.”
He said he has never considered giving up the game, which continues to amaze his younger teammates.
“I wish I could be 88 and still able to play,” Hanato said.