PERU, ILLINOIS — If you’ve never seen a “fish out of water,” you just may want to visit Peru, Illinois, where — on any given afternoon this summer — you may see four of them.
“It’s definitely a big culture change for sure,” said Tobey Jackson, 19, one of four college baseball players who are native Hawaiians, living in Peru to play for the city’s Prospect League team, the Pistol Shrimp.
“I didn’t know Peru, Illinois existed,” Xander Sielken, another one of the players, said.
Before a game this week, the four went to Baker Lake, to fish. “There’s not much that’s similar to home,” said Cody Kashimoto https://smcgaels.com/sports/baseball/roster/cody-kashimoto/4199, who had caught a blue gill. “The fish are different, too.”
Kashimoto, 20, is a student at St. Mary’s College of California. “I want to make it professionally,” he said. “I want to play baseball in the MLB. Especially coming from Hawaii, we look up top guys like Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Kolten Wong. we want to be in their spots playing in the big spots.”
In the 17-team Prospect League, the players play with wooden bats. They’re all in college and trying to improve their skills through an intensive 58-game season (played in just 64 days).
“They’re my players only for 60 days,” said John Jakiemiec, the team’s owner and manager. “I’m a steward and so when we bring on a player, we’ll have conversations with college coaches on what things you want to work on what do they need to do to help your program in the fall and next spring. Our mission is to make sure when we send a kid back, they’ll say, ‘Coach I got better. I learned more about myself and the game.’”
They’re in a professional atmosphere, playing in front of scouts and fans, but as amateur players they are unpaid. So, the teams and players rely on the historic backbone of the Prospect League: Host families. Local families take in players for the summer, providing housing, food and personal connections. The Hawaiians are all living at the home of Charlie Trovero, the owner of a Peru car wash known as “Mr. Sparkle.”
“To have four native Hawaiian kids around has been awesome,” Trovero said.
He’s turned his basement into a hybrid dorm room/game room for the players.
“In the basement, (there’s) a lot of pool tournaments, ping pong tournaments, putting green,” he said. “There’s been a lot of Nerf gun battles going on down there as well. The boys have been super excited to ambush all the players when they get home.”
The four players have become almost like big brothers to Trovero’s 10-year-old son, Landon.
“It’s just a little brother from Illinois,” Sielken said.
“All the host families, they do so much for us,” Kedren Kinzie, another one of the players, said. “(They) put a roof over our heads, put food on the table – pretty much anything you can ask for,”
The Pistol Shrimp have become a marketing sensation – selling merchandise to fans around the country because of their quirky nickname.
“The pistol shrimp are a real thing. Believe it or not it’s called the deadliest animal on the planet,” said June Keeley the general manager of the team.
A pistol shrimp has a single claw. When it snaps it sounds like a pistol has been fired. John Jakiemiec the team’s owner and manager actually found the nickname in a newspaper article when researching team names.
Peru is a city of fewer than 10,000 residents about two hours south of Chicago. For the players from Hawaii and other far-flung locations, this summer was an education and an experience through the lens of the Midwest.
“This part of the world is so green and so different for them. It’s a very different sensation for them and they grow from it,” Jakiemiec said. “They don’t necessarily come here thinking anything but baseball, but they leave knowing this is a broadening experience in their lives.”