Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Even those who have never watched a Little League Baseball game know the name “Gerald Oda,” manager of the two-time Little League Baseball World Series Championship team, first in 2018 and then again this past summer. In 2018, Gerald and his team were all over the news, both locally and nationally, gaining the respect and admiration of many for his humble coaching style. And for not just winning the championship, but also earning the Jack Losch Little League Baseball World Series Team Sportsmanship Award alongside their final opponents from Peachtree, Georgia.
Some may remember that the LLBWS was going on as Hurricane Lane headed directly for Hawai‘i. The Peachtree team got together and made a donation toward Hurricane Lane relief efforts in Hawai‘i. Touched by their generosity, the Hawai‘i team adorned the Georgia team with lei and local omiyage candy gifts as they wished their opponents luck prior to the championship game. Gerald’s team won the same sportsmanship award for a second time in 2021, even though they did not come out on top. The fact that Gerald’s team wins (and occasionally loses) with grace and humility while sharing their aloha spirit epitomizes an accurate snapshot of his successful and influential coaching career.
Gerald has been coaching Little League Baseball for thirty years, ever since he was “voluntold” by his older brother, Donovan. “Donovan had played [baseball] for [University of Hawai‘i] Mänoa,” said Gerald. “One day he was working and [someone] recognized him and asked him to coach Kaimuki Little League, which is what Honolulu Little League was called back then. Donovan then asked me and my brother Keith to help. Been coaching since then.”
Family. Teamwork. “We>Me.” The team’s motto is not something just printed on the back of their jerseys, it is a coaching framework. Gerald asked St. Louis Head Coach George Gusman, who coined the phrase, for permission to use the slogan on his teams’ shirts. The Odas have been coaching at St. Louis for over ten years. “Around 2010-2011 we started coaching at St. Louis. My friend was the head coach of the Vars, this was even before Gusman, and he knew we coached so he asked us to come help,” explained Keith. The Odas continue to try to help out Gusman and the St. Louis baseball program whenever they can.
Gerald and his brothers grew up in Kailua, O‘ahu. He played Little League Baseball with his brothers for the Kailua American Little League. He remembers being on the Red Sox team for a number of years and still could name most of his Little League and Junior and Senior League coaches. “Coach Vincent, Coach Muranaka, Coach Hamacon, Coach Benevidez — he was my neighbor, Coach Gushiken. My brother Donovan was coached by Coach Howard Okita and he called his kids ‘bananas’ and I actually do the same,” Gerald reminisced.
Calling his players “bananas” is, of course, not the only influence that Gerald’s coaches have had on him. “They were good guys. Picked up me and my brother for practice, took us home. Our parents were working. [The coaches] didn’t have to, just out of the kindness of their hearts.” Gerald said that he is appreciative of what his coaches did for him and that is why he and his fellow coaches always try to help out their players and their families whenever possible, whenever it is needed.
However, not all parents and players can uphold the value of a team more than the individual player and his statistics. Gerald revealed his secret, “You want to have a great team with great players, first find great parents. First thing I always ask people is ‘how are the parents?’ That’s the key. They have to buy into the team first, not their son first.” Former player and now fellow coach, Willis Kato, whole-heartedly agreed, “Good parents are like essentially having another 26-28 coaches. They’re reinforcing what you want to do.”
Gerald admitted that in his thirty years of coaching, there have been a few parents who could not get on board with his coaching style but he understands where they are coming from. “As parents you have to do what’s best for your son, protect them, but as a coach we have to do what’s best for the team. You either agree or you may need to find another team. We dialogue about it, and sometimes find it’s just no longer a good fit. There’s no hard feelings,” Gerald said.
Over the years, some of the rules of the game have changed, but not too drastically. Gerald believes the hype and excitement have gotten bigger and more exposure because of ESPN getting more involved in Little League. In fact, the whole concept of “travel baseball” did not even exist when he was playing ball as a kid.
“We never did travel,” said Gerald. At least, not for baseball. Gerald’s father’s side of the family is from Papaikou, Hawai‘i island. As kids they would visit every year. “My dad is the only boy of five girls. Three of my aunties still live there,” Gerald shared. “As we got older, it was rare to go back. Last time was in 2018 for a funeral. Family reunions tend to be in the summer and that’s baseball season, playoff time.”
Gerald recalled having a lot of fun on his grandparents’ property in Papaikou. “They had a big property!” he exclaimed. Keith remembered that their grandparents had a nursery. “I didn’t even know it was a nursery at the time,” Keith laughed. “There were all these plants and trees. [I remember] going to the river and just running around over there.” Gerald agreed that they mostly stayed on their grandparents’ property. “I just remember staying home and eating whatever Grandma or Grandpa made, or going to my aunties’ homes. We didn’t go out to eat too much.” However, Gerald now has a different take on traveling with his players.
“We used to take our kids to Disneyland or Universal Studios when we would go to California. Amusement parks. Taking them to do things they wouldn’t normally get to do in Hawai‘i,” Gerald said. He elaborated that they try to expose their kids to different cultures, to try different foods, to go out and see different kinds of people. It is important to Gerald to show his players that “there’s good people no matter where we go.”
Gerald graduated from Kailua High School in 1986. He played junior varsity baseball for two years and then varsity baseball his senior year. “I played basketball my junior year. I was hard-head at the time,” Gerald admitted. It may also surprise some that Gerald did not play college ball because he didn’t have the grades.
“I was too playful. Not disciplined enough to study hard in school.” Gerald admitted that it took him a long time to graduate from UH Mänoa, in 1997, with a degree in political science. Gerald carries with him what he learned the hard way about the importance of working hard in school and imparts these lessons on his players. “I don’t want them to follow in my footsteps,” he said. He knows it’s imperative that his players have the grades along with the athletic skills if they want to move on to play at the next level — college.
In fact, his players’ grades are so important to Gerald that he requires grade checks. At practice, the kids take turns sharing their report cards in front of the whole team. “If you’re embarrassed then do better. It’s not about making fun, it’s about reinforcing good grades,” he explained. He wants the players to hold each other accountable and support each other, on and off the field. It turns out that his players maintain their support of the team long after they stop playing for Gerald.
He is still in touch with his 2018 team, his first team who won the Little League World Championship. “In fact, right now, seven of them are playing in a tournament in Jupiter, Florida,” Gerald shared. The parents were sharing updates and pictures with him. Another former player drove down to Williamsport all the way from New York — twice! Once back in 2008 and again in 2018 when Oda’s team last took the championship. “Something happens, they see we’re playing nearby or they see us on TV and they reach out,” Gerald said. He truly appreciates when former players make the effort to come say hi or watch his current team play.
Keith added, “Every year former players come back and throw [batting practice] and help us out. These older kids are the most valuable part of our practice to get our kids prepared for the tournament because they can throw hard and accurate. We keep in touch with a lot of the former players because once we coach them we become like an extended family.”
A few former players have even become part of Gerald’s coaching staff. “Willis Kato, Gavin Okada … they are former players but come help coach and throw for us. It really helps us out,” said Gerald. Okada played for Oda in 2004 and again in 2005 when their O‘ahu Stars team won the Cal Ripken World Series Championship, the same year that the West O‘ahu All-Star team won the Little League World Series Championship for the first time, which got a lot more media coverage than the Cal Ripken World Series tournament. Okada joined the coaching staff last year after not being able to return to Japan to continue playing professional baseball due to the pandemic.
“It’s been a good experience,” Okada shared. He is also a coach at his alma mater, Kalani High School. Okada played varsity baseball for Kalani before playing for Hartnell Junior College in California, followed by Northwestern College. He had already been playing baseball in Japan for five years when COVID-19 shut everything down. “[I’m] pretty young to this coaching thing, usually [I] just come out to help and throw BP, but this year I did a little more and learned how to handle the kids. Coach Gerald giving me extra advice and tidbits really helped me with how to deal with these kids, and I’ve been able to use those skills at Kalani as a coach.”
Kato, another former-player-turned-coaching-staff, played baseball for all of the Oda brothers in the mid to late 90s. “At the time, Coach Gerald was not the head coach; I played under Coach Keith,” recalled Kato. “Donovan was the team manager first, then me and then when I moved to the mainland [in ‘97], Gerald became manager. We all had our rotation. When I moved back in ‘02, after 9-11, we started coaching together again,” explained Keith.
Keith admitted that coaching with brothers is different from coaching with non-relatives, such as Kato and Okada. “The thing with brothers is we’re much more blunt with each other than with the other coaches. We’ve had some arguments. But we get along very well. You end up spending a lot more time together otherwise we would just see each other at family events. We see each other constantly.”
Besides the close family dynamics, what else sets the Odas’ team apart from other All-Star Little League teams? “I think because we’ve been [coaching] for a while. We know what level of play we need to be at to be successful,” revealed Keith. “When you first start you think about how good the other teams are, but [we] practice to reach a certain level of excellence regardless of who we play. We don’t worry about the opponents, we worry about us.”
Kato remembers the same messages coming from “Coach Keith” and “Coach Gerald,” but there were a lot of differences in coaching styles then compared to more recent times. “We come from a different era. Growing up playing sports, the way coaches talked to players was different. The message that he’s sending across and what he’s teaching is the same. The approach might be a little different.” Coaching alongside the Oda brothers is not something new for Kato. Kato has been coaching with them for 12 or 13 years, including at St. Louis School from 2010 to 2017.
Kato even interned for the same company as Keith while he was a student at University of Las Vegas, Nevada. “Baseball aside, [Keith] got me going and taught me what it’s going to take … showing up on time, being prepared, working hard, the Odas really taught me those things. Now that I have hit a certain peak I want to give that back.”
Gerald and his brothers’ tremendous impact on the baseball community in Hawai‘i started long before winning any of their Little League Baseball or Cal Ripken World Series Championships. Gerald has been influential to his players’ growth both on and off the field. He is still humbled when players continue to share milestones with him, and not just the baseball achievements. “I went to a couple weddings already. One of my former players works for the same company as me and he still calls me ‘Coach Gerald.’ [It’s] nice seeing these kids grow up,” Gerald reflected. “It feels good for them to want to share these moments with you.”
Kato summed it up perfectly, “When you ask me what we would do at practice [as a player], I really don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. But the life lessons I took away with me. The life lessons I remember. Very, very life-changing, motivating people, the Odas. All of them.”