Ka’ai Tom has never had it easy.
The talented Hawaiian grew up in a baseball family where his grandfather, father and both brothers played collegiate baseball, but he had trouble standing out.
Even on the football field, he was a great athlete, but he was stuck playing back-up quarterback in high school to future Heisman winner and eventual first-round draft pick Marcus Mariota.
So needless to say, Tom has had to scratch and claw his way to earn everything he’s got.
Tom’s hard work paid off as he went from not even being recruited by a D1 college to transferring to Kentucky and eventually becoming a fifth round selection by the Cleveland Indians in 2015.
The 22-year old outfielder began 2017 in High-A Lynchburg, now fully healthy after an injury-riddled 2016, and he’s been doing some damage for the Hillcats at the top of the order with a solid slash line of .275/.361/.348.
Tom spoke to Let’s Go Tribe about his extraordinary work ethic, culture shock and sci-fi movies in this exclusive interview.
Brian Hemminger (Let’s Go Tribe): You come from a serious athletic background. A significant portion of your family played college baseball and your father was a coach as well. What was it like growing up in that environment?
Ka’ai Tom: It’s pretty fun to be a part of such an active family. It was very crazy when we were young. It was me and my brother, I’d always go to his little league games and my mom was always busy, my dad was always busy coaching my oldest brother who was 10 years older than me in high school. Everyone was running around but it was crazy.
It also helped me a lot growing up and being able to learn the fundamentals at such a young age and watching my brothers. Having them as role models was great.
Brian Hemminger: Your decision to go to junior college, you were kind of betting on yourself going to the continental United States to play ball. Is it tough getting noticed when you’re playing in Hawaii, maybe that scene gets overlooked?
Ka’ai Tom: Generally, yes I believe so. We’re very far apart from the continental United States. The only time they’d get to see us is if we were going to scouting camps and that’s usually in preseason so they don’t get a great chance to evaluate the players.
It’s just crazy because I wasn’t recruited out of high school. It was just me and my mom trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I knew that baseball was what I wanted to do growing up. I basically told her I just wanted to play ball. It doesn’t matter where I go and it just so happens that I was able to get into a school that was interested in me in Kansas, and it’s very unusual to see a Hawaiian guy go to Kansas (laughs) to play some ball.
It didn’t matter to me, I was just following my dreams and it all worked out in the end.
Brian Hemminger: Was it a bit of a shock at all coming to the continental US? I’m sure the weather was different but was there anything else?
Ka’ai Tom: Yeah, the lifestyle is different. Definitely the weather. I experienced some pretty cold weather but I knew what I was getting myself into and I just stay focused and concentrated on baseball and school at the time.
Brian Hemminger: What are the top things you miss from back home when you were in school and even now?
Ka’ai Tom: Besides my family, which is obvious, my dogs of course, but I really miss my mom’s cooking to be honest. Just the way she prepares dishes and whatnot. There’s nothing like homecooked meals.
Brian Hemminger: The Indians surprisingly have another Hawaiian player in their system, Jodd Carter, and you’re actually teammates this year. Have you gotten to know him well at all?
Ka’ai Tom: Yeah, I actually got to know him my first year at Mahoning Valley when he came up from the Arizona Rookie League. It was pretty cool to be with another guy from Hawaii. We could kind of connect a bit and just a couple series ago, Jodd and I were able to see a couple other guys from Hawaii who play for the Carolina Mud Cats. One of those guys was actually a teammate of mine in high school, so it was nice to catch up.
Brian Hemminger: When you’re not playing baseball and you want to recharge the batteries a little bit, what do you do?
Ka’ai Tom: I usually relax, or go to the mall, maybe call up a few teammates and meet up somewhere to either read up on something or watch TV. I like to watch movies more than TV. I’m big into Sci-Fi movies and I keep up to date on all the Star Wars kind of things. Gotta take your mind off baseball a bit and when the day comes you have to report back to the field, that’s when you click it back on.
Brian Hemminger: One thing I’ve noticed over and over again reading profiles about your baseball skill, is that your’e the type of player that does all the little things right. They say you’re a hustler, you never stop competing and you’re always giving it everything you’ve got. Is that just something that’s always been a part of you?
Ka’ai Tom: Absolutely. It’s been something that really was instilled on me as a kid, especially being in a sports family. It was one of those family where if I didn’t do well, I just didn’t want to hear it from my parents or from my older brothers when I come home kind of thing.
My mom definitely told me to play hard. We’re suiting up, we’re going back on the field, you might as well be the best. Be the best player on the field, be the best player you can possibly be and that’s something that carried over with me.
Brian Hemminger: Has it been difficult to get back to going 100 percent all the time after those two shoulder injuries you had last year? That had to be super frustrating with how well you were playing at the time.
Ka’ai Tom: Yeah, it was very frustrating, but I just trusted the process through the rehab which just happened to be out here. I try not to think about it at all and just go out there and play ball, try not to put a handicap on myself because of what happened to my shoulder. I just go out there and play the best I can.
Brian Hemminger: What did you think about the confidence the organization showed in you, promoting you to High-A Lynchburg even though you weren’t able to play much last year?
Ka’ai Tom: First and foremost, you just want to take care of your body and be the best player you can, but it is also comforting to know that they have my back and my full support. It’s definitely comforting to be in that situation.
Brian Hemminger: Do you have any goals you wanted to accomplish this year?
Ka’ai Tom: Not necessarily. Just really want to make sure I go 100 percent and be a great teammate and take care of myself since it’s a long season and I plan to be here. It’s all about controlling what you can control.
Brian Hemminger: Loyalty seems to be a big thing with you as well. Kentucky gave you a chance out of junior college and you’ve been supporting them huge and the same goes with the Indians giving you a chance and you’re twitter feed has been full of Indians and Wildcats stuff. Is that just part of your make-up?
Ka’ai Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Kentucky gave me my opportunity to play in arguably the best conference in America so that’s always gonna be my school and Cleveland gave me the chance to fulfill my dreams. They think I can be a part of their Cleveland club and that’s just how I am. They’ll always have my full support.
Ka’ai would like to give a shoutout to everyone who’s been a part of his journey, his college coaches, his mom, who’s been there for him through the hard and good times. You can follow him on Twitter @Just_Blaze25.