Umpire Wilson Johanes began Portland's Palauan softball league as a way to bring the community together. Photo by Bill Lascher
PORTLAND – This weekend, sports fans worldwide turn their attention to London and the start of the Summer Olympics. But there's another international athletic competition here in the Northwest that will draw hundreds of immigrants from the tiny island nation of Palau. It's a softball tournament that's become a major event in the lives of Pacific Islanders living in our region and beyond.
Umpire Wilson Johanes watches carefully as a base runner races home on a deep drive to right field.
Johanes was born in Palau, a tiny island nation 600 miles east of the Philippines, but now lives in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. For more than 20 years he's organized a softball league that brings together Palauans from Salem, Portland and surrounding towns. This season it has five teams that play every weekend.
“There were a lot of Palauans over here. They had nothing to do on the weekend," Johanes says. "So I decided 'well, why don't we start a little softball league and get together every summer and see each other?'"
The biggest of these get-togethers is a tournament in Kent, WA. Roughly 700 Pacific Islanders gather for a four-day event. It features opening and closing ceremonies, barbecues, and live music at night.
Organizers expect teams from all over the West and even Hawaii. One team is even expected to travel all the way from Palau to compete.
The players in the tournament are not all Palauan. There will also be players from Saipan, Pohnpei, Kosrae and other islands.
Juliana Franz, who will make the trip up from Salem, say she's “very excited, because I heard there's a team coming from Palau and we look forward to meet that team.”
The Japanese brought baseball to Palau when they ruled the country in the early 20th Century. The country still has competitive baseball and softball leagues. Even the country's current president, was a star shortstop and managed a championship team.
“Softball has actually been around for quite a few years for us. Normally in the summers we all just know that it's time to get together and play softball. It's a community thing,” says Ona Claney. She plays first base and just returned to Salem after a few years working and teaching in Palau.
The tournament in will be the biggest one Claney's ever participated in. She says it will be a chance to reconnect with family and friends.
“We're a small community whether we're in Palau or outside of Palau. We all know each other somehow.”
Claney's teammate Julianna Franz looks forward to celebrating Paluan culture, but that doesn't mean she's going to go easy on the guest players coming from her home country.
“They said they're the best, and my team is the best, so we're going to see who's the best of the best.”
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network