SAUGET, Ill. — Brent Sakurai is from Aiea, Hawaii: 4,129 miles from Sauget, Illinois. His pilgrimage back to GCS Credit Union Ballpark involved a week-long pit stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he played his college baseball, to work out with his former college team and adjust to the four-hour time change, which would become five total hours different once he reached the Central Time Zone.
Playing far from home is nothing new for the third-year Grizzlie, who played on the mainland in college at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College and New Mexico State University.
“After talking with my family and my brother, who played Div. I baseball on the mainland, they all wanted me to explore the mainland because they wanted me to see what else was out there,” Sakurai said. “And the opportunities that are available on the mainland are a lot better than [in Hawaii] — more exposure on the mainland as well. But I would say they really wanted me to just gain experience, and not just baseball but life experience, living on my own … kinda explore what it’s like to be on your own and grow up.”
En route to an NCAA Div. I opportunity, Sakurai first spent two seasons in the junior college ranks.
“What they say is that it really tests how much you love the game,” Sakurai said. “You see a lot of players quit in the JUCO route cause it’s a grind, it’s long days. But I had a blast. I had good teammates, and that made it a lot of fun.”
But minimal time back home has become routine for Sakurai.
“My first two years of college I got to spend two weeks of the winter and most of the summer back home, but following my junior season I was playing in the Valley League in Virginia,” Sakurai said. “So I got to go home for, I think it was seven days. Except for that one week, I was gone from junior Christmas break to the next Christmas break.”
The diminutive shortstop hit .377 as a senior at NMSU, where he was part of head coach Brian Green’s first recruiting class. In 2015, Green’s first season, the Aggies finished 11-38-1. Then Sakurai arrived, and NMSU reeled off 34 wins in 2016 and 35 more in 2017. Last season, the Aggies won 40 games, their first-ever Western Athletic Conference tournament championship and made only their fourth NCAA regional appearance in program history.
So what brought the Second Team All-WAC selection another 1,100-plus miles from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Sauget? Well, it didn’t hurt that he already had a connection to the Grizzlies: former Gateway broadcaster Adam Young (pictured: below right) has called New Mexico State games since 2014.
“Adam actually reached out to me and was talking to me about [Gateway], said he loved it when he worked here. I was asking questions about what kinda atmosphere there is, how everything works, and he was explaining it to me. It was really cool to hear cause I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of talent in this league,’ a lot of affiliated guys that were high-round draft picks. So I knew it was going to be a good first step for me cause those guys have been through it. For me to fit right in and try to acclimate myself to the professional lifestyle, it was good to have a lot of guys with experience.”
Fast-forward to 2019 and, as the Grizzlies’ only returning position player, he wants to show some of the newer players how things are done at Gateway.
“It’s definitely different to be the only position player coming back,” Sakurai said. “But mentality-wise, it’s all the same; just going to work hard and try to lead by example, I guess, around here. Cause, I mean, there’s a lot of guys that have a lot more pro experience than me, so I’m still going to be learning a lot from them. As far as things work around here, I can help kind of point guys in the right direction. But that’s all a credit to the guys we’ve had in the past and the experience they’re shared with me and helping me grow and become a professional player here.”
A defensive standout with Gateway, Sakurai has also showed glimpses of significant power for his size — especially over the final weeks of the 2017 season. Entering his third year as a professional in 2019, he hopes to show more offensive consistency.
“The biggest thing is maturity, for me,” Sakurai said. “ was the biggest learning year for me, learning how to deal with adversity. I kind of lost it a bit early in the season and I started overthinking things, so this whole offseason I was practicing the mental side of things. Learning how to deal with failure and adjust from there was the biggest thing for me. I want to be more consistent, more positive, and make sure, at the end of the day, I’m having fun.”