SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- Instead of spending the holidays with family and friends on the mainland, a trio of former Cal Poly baseball players went to Hawai'i.
It was all for a good cause, however.
Mitch Haniger, Mike Miller and Joey Wagman, working with a California nonprofit, are working to renovate youth baseball fields in Hilo on the Big Island.
Miller, infielder in the Boston Red Sox organization; Haniger, outfielder for the Seattle Mariners; and Wagman, pitcher in the Oakland A's minor league system who played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic earlier this year, arrived this week to work with the nonprofit More Than A Game to renovate the baseball fields at the Boys & Girls Club of the Big Island.
Marshall Murray, founder of More Than A Game, told the Hawaii Star Tribune the nonprofit works with professional athletes to empower communities through work and interaction with young athletes.
"I was here in Hilo with Michael Miller in January and we met with the Boys & Girls Club people and saw their fields weren't in the best shape," Murray said.
The Boys & Girls Club of the Big Island, an after-school program for children and teenagers, has two small baseball diamonds at its program location in Hilo. Lincoln Wreckers parent-coach Koa Marzo said approximately 60 children have used the fields regularly in the past year, in spite of dense overgrowth and dilapidated infrastructure.
"The lower field's dugout has no roof, it's rotted through," Marzo said. "And it's been harboring homeless people and it's been a safe place for people to do drugs, and it's not the sort of thing we want around here."
Since January, Marzo cleared much of the overgrowth but there's still work to be done. Fences need to be repaired, turf needs to be replaced, new mounds need to be built and more, Murray said.
"It feels good to work like this," Miller said. "We're not just coming over and doing an honorary ceremony, we're staying in the community and getting our hands dirty. I'm not just a figurehead."
When Murray, who coached Miller's brother, invited the three to work with More Than A Game during the offseason, they agreed.
"I wanted to give back, help kids in need," Haniger said.
When the players aren't repairing the fields, they coach young players, help with their homework or simply talk with them about their futures.
Murray said Haniger brought the children of the Boys & Girls Club signed bats, while Miller brought two bags of official major league baseballs when they first met Monday.
"When you're a kid, you look up, you want to be a professional athlete or an astronaut or whatever, and people say that'll never happen," Haniger said. "And, yeah, it probably won't, but if you can focus on what you can do each day to reach that goal, then it still gets you somewhere."
Miller said this is his fourth such trip with More Than A Game since he joined last year, having worked in Richmond and Guadalupe in California and another in Rhode Island.
"A lot of kids don't have access to these opportunities," he said. "It's good to let them know there's people out there rooting for them. I've seen kids take off with just a little bit of love."
For seven days, Haniger, Miller and a couple other volunteers literally dug in to renovate the two rundown ballfields in Hilo and hold daily clinics for about 60 kids to help spark a baseball revival in the area.
"It was several long days of work," said Haniger, who put together a strong rookie season for Seattle last year after being acquired from the D-backs. "But it was fun. This side of the island definitely needed some help, and it's been great to give back to these kids and families, seeing the smiles on their faces."
Miller, who played for Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket club last year, joined up with the charity a few years ago and the group has done field renovations around Oakland and New England as well as Columbia, the Dominican, Panama and Cameroon.
Many players take part in coaching clinics to help kids, but the More Than A Game group takes things a step further by pitching in to clean up facilities and fields that need help.
"The two fields we worked on, they looked like they hadn't been worked on in years," Haniger told MLB.com. "We had to resurface the infield, pull weeds, reestablish the lines and grass, put in a new mound and pitching rubber, home plate, everything. We made it look good."
The group even fixed up the dugouts and a concession stand between the fields that had been taken over by some homeless men. Miller said the hope is the facility will be used now to host tournaments and raise money on its own to allow baseball to flourish again in the community.
"Teams here had to travel all over the island to play because it wasn't safe here," Miller said. "So hopefully we're taking a step in the right direction."
Haniger said the experience reinforced the game at its basic level. He and Miller helped keep up the field at Baggett Stadium during their college days, so they weren't strangers to the work. But Haniger said he had renewed appreciation for the grounds crews in the Majors and Minor Leagues, as well as kids who just want to play ball and have fun.
"We've had so many things brought into our lives from baseball and so many fun experiences, the more we can share that with kids, the better," he said. "That's the goal, to help them have a field and place to just play."
And every afternoon, Haniger spent about 2 1/2 hours, until the sun went down, actually playing and teaching kids ages 5-14 about the game he loves.
"Baseball and sports have taught me so much about life and working hard and being persistent," he said. "That's something that will help me after baseball, for the rest of my life.
"That's my main message to these kids, that if you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want as long as you keep going at it as hard as you can."
Photos courtesy of the Hawaii Star-Tribune and MLB.com