For the Cleveland Indians, they have to feel fortunate that Ka’ai Tom found himself on the depth chart behind Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota on the depth chart at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, Hawaii. This is only partially kidding.
“Aside from baseball, (football) was actually one of my first loves,” Tom said. “I really wanted to play football, and I really am still into football. It was a pretty fun sport. I like to think I was pretty good. I was a quarterback/skill position-type guy.”
Other than playing behind Mariota, Tom played a slash athlete position. He did admit that running back really wasn’t fun. The biggest challenge, he said, was trying to block “those big Polynesian guys.”
On the field, he said that the school’s prominence spoke for itself, with over a decade of state titles. The list of guys to play in the NFL and go to the college level is in the form of a scroll. However, he did not play his senior year after deciding that baseball was the way to go.
Clearly, the choice was a good one, as he has performed well in his first taste of Triple-A in 2019. Tom hit .290 with seven home runs and 26 overall extra base hits in 183 at bats through Sunday. As for the success, Tom credits some adjustments made in Akron.
“Everything has been going pretty well,” Tom said. “I think that I am just getting to a spot that I knew I needed to, in order to get a consistent, leveled-out swing to get those line drives. That plays into my approach and plays into my game. Back in April or May, I was talking to my hitting coach in Akron and let him know what I was feeling and what I needed to do and how I need to go about it. We just started working on it. It wasn’t any huge mechanical changes. I have a similar set up, but it is just one little tweak here to keep me loaded, stacked, and ready to hit the pitches. I have a strong rhythm and it has been working since.”
While he is just one step away from the big leagues, the path has not always been as paved for Tom and the quality of decision to play baseball was not always so clear. He was not recruited highly out of high school. He took the Junior College route, but ended up in the SEC at Kentucky. For Tom, the culture change was pretty large, but he had some help in the process after arriving.
“I have to really give credit to one of my first teammates that I met there,” Tom said. “I think we just kind of kept in touch and everything. We played together of course. He actually invited me over to Thanksgiving to his family’s place. His family really accepted me and are my Kentucky family. I was able to see all of them just this last road trip when we were in Louisville, because they actually live there. It is awesome to have people like that who really accept you and make your transitions very seamless.”
Outside of the adjustment off the field, Tom had a large one on the field as well, to a major Division One competition. He remembers facing Walker Buehler, Carson Fulmer, and other guys who are already big league arms. He also remembered watching South Carolina when they were going on their three-year run in the World Series as a child. After two strong seasons against the competition with a .912 OPS, Tom was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 Draft by the Cleveland Indians.
While he is excited to get so close to his own dream, Tom is also excited to share the experience with the people so close to him. Coming from a baseball family, these are folks that he has spent so much time around the ballfield with.
“I definitely give credit to (my oldest brother) and watching him,” Tom said. “I actually have another brother who is four years older than I am. Being at the field all the time growing up, as a little kid, even as far as seventh grade to eighth grade, I was able to watch my brothers. My dad was the coach too, so I really learned baseball from all of them. My grandpa was always there. Those really were my mentors and people that I look up to. They were my role models and taught me the game of baseball. It still carries with me today.”