LIHUE — Since he was 16 years old, Hank Ibia has worn No. 9.
From his days of playing fastpitch softball, to his time playing centerfielder for the University of Hawaii Hilo’s baseball team, until now as Kauai High School’s varsity baseball head coach, the No. 9 has always been draped on his back.
“I wore No. 10 in high school. No. 9 came though my sophomore year with the older guys. I played fastpitch softball with the men,” Ibia said Tuesday at Vidinha Stadium. “I asked for No. 10. I was too late already. When I came home, my mom said, ‘They get the uniforms. You get No. 9.’ I said, ‘OK.’
“I didn’t know too much about it. And then I found out that Ted Williams, he wore No. 9,” he continued. “I said, ‘Hey, he’s the best hitter.’ I thought I could hit, too. So right there, I go like, ‘I don’t mind wearing No. 9.’”
This past season, though, he did not wear his usual number. Ibia wore No. 27 instead, and he did so to honor his late uncle.
“With all my cousins that I have … he just took care of us as a whole,” Ibia said. “We were like best friends, not like uncle and nephew. We were friends. We could talk to him at anytime, and you could talk about anything. That’s how close we were.”
Pedro “Pete” Rabasa died in January at the age of 79 from battling stomach cancer.
“He’s been fighting for over a year or so. I would say a couple of years,” Ibia said. “When we did preseason a couple of years ago on Maui, I couldn’t see him. He was done with his treatment. He couldn’t be around anybody. If anybody gets sick, he might get pneumonia or something.”
Born in Wailuku, Maui, Rabasa moved with his family to Kauai at a young age. He graduated from Kauai High School in 1956 and later settled back on Maui.
Rabasa supported the team over the years during preseasons and state tournaments when he’d host the players, coaches and parents.
“For the first 10 years, my uncle had come and cooked for us — for the kids — on Oahu. On Maui, everybody would go to his house and eat, to help the parents so they wouldn’t have to provide more money,” Ibia said. “That’s how big my uncle was in our program — over 10 years coming from Maui.”
During his high school years, Rabasa wore No. 27 as an offensive guard for the Red Raiders football team.
“He would always talk to me about it — about how good he was. And a lot of his friends told me he was really good,” Ibia said. “He was an all star. He was a good athlete.”
He added: “That was the number he wore, and he was pretty proud of it. He had one shirt, that shirt for the longest time. They brought it out at his funeral. I saw that number all the time. I don’t know what happened. I was sitting down at church and I’m like, ‘What if I carried 27?’ This is for my uncle. One year, so I can hold him up one year and let him go after that.”
So in honor of his late uncle, Ibia wore No. 27 for the 2017 season. As a man stuck in his ways in baseball, change isn’t usually favored. But he welcomed this change.
“It was right here (at Vidinha Stadium), in fact,” the coach said of wearing it for the first time. “We came. I told them, ‘Hey, how does the thing look?’ I turned my back. My wife always seen me with No. 9, yeah? She goes, ‘Oh, it looks good.’ I go, ‘You know what, babe? I feel good.’”
He added: “It’s different. I’m a strong believer in what I do and what I wear — the same socks every game, you know what I mean? I go, ‘Yeah, this 27 feels good on me.’”
The team then went on to go 10-3 in the regular season to win the school’s fourth consecutive league crown and then defeated three seeded teams, including the No. 1 seed and the then-defending champion, to win the HHSAA Division II state championship.
During the season, though, many peculiar things occurred.
While the team deserves a lot of credit for its state title run, there were some plays that were just so miraculous, Ibia cannot explain how it happened. Other than simply saying, “27 had my back.”
As Ibia stood at third base during the games and the Red Raiders were in bad situations, it would appear he was talking to himself out loud. Actually, he was talking to his Uncle Pete.
“That was my saying at third base: ‘Uncle, talk to me brah. I need you right now,’” he said. “At each game it was going on, at times it was falling into place when I was talking to him, you know what I mean? It almost ride me all the way through the state championship.”
He added during those times at third base, the opposing team wondered who was he talking to as it appeared his was talking to himself.
Call it a coincidence. Call it divine intervention. Call it however you see fit. To Ibia, the team’s path to the state title coincided with the fact that, as he said, “27 had my back.”
“It was just an overwhelming thing to overcome,” he said. “Championship game, the guy misses the ball at first base. The ball comes out of his glove, and we score the winning run. How’s that one? … With all the things happening, only the guy up there knows. As we’re walking though the season, there’s a lot of times where things shouldn’t have happened, but it had for us.”
Although wearing the No. 27 has brought some luck, Ibia will not wear it next season. He will go back to his usual No. 9 in 2018.
“At one time, you got to let him go. When you going to let it go? When we lose? If we lose the following year, then go back to No. 9?” he said. “I made the decision already that I’m going to wear 27 for (just) the year.”
As for what he’ll do with those No. 27 jerseys, Ibia said he will gift them to his cousins — Rabasa’s daughters Ann and Maria — at some point in the near future.
“I thought about it a lot. I got two shirts. I got two cousins. Three cousins — one is the boy (Rabasa’s son Peter). But the two girls, I’m going to give them one shirt each. I’m going to frame them and give it to them,” he said. “Me doing this for them, for me it’s going to feel good. It’s going to be the best thing.”