Kean Wong is pretty familiar with the city of Durham.
When other players matriculate through the Tampa Bay Rays’ system to the Bulls, Wong, an infielder, can recommend places to eat in the city. His go-to suggestion for breakfast is Elmo’s Diner. He likes JuJu for lunch.
Wong is comfortable in Durham, but at the minor league level, you don’t want to be comfortable in one city for two long. That’s usually a bad thing. The goal is to advance, and advancement at the Triple-A level means the majors — in the case of the Bulls, a call up to play for the Rays.
Wong, 23, has played two and a half years in Durham and when he looks around the clubhouse he feels like the old guy. The Hawaii native is one of 16 players returning from last season’s Governors’ Cup title team. In fact Wong was the team MVP in 2018 and the 2017 Triple-A National Championship Game MVP.
He has become a household name to diehard Durham baseball fans, mainly for his play on the field, but also because he’s the one guy on the roster who has been a constant since he moved up from Double-A Montgomery in 2017.
Sure, Wong is the guy in the clubhouse that first-year skipper Brady Williams can lean on for guidance, but how does a player like Wong stay in the moment with the Bulls, while having his eye on the ultimate goal of making it to the major leagues?
“I love baseball and I’m going to come here every day and play 100 percent,” Wong said. “If I’m here all year I’m going to try and win another championship. If not I would love to go up there (Tampa) and help them win the World Series as well. Whatever happens, happens, but it’s in God’s hands right now.”
Wong admitted there have been moments when he has been frustrated with the process. He isn’t the only one. His older brother, Kolten, is an infielder with the St. Louis Cardinals. Last season, in an interview with the St. Louis Dispatch, Kolten ripped the Rays for not calling up his younger brother. The older Wong went as far as calling the Rays a “bad organization.”
Wong insist those comments didn’t put him in a bad spot with Tampa Bay.
“No. He had to say what he had to say,” Wong said. “I didn’t tell him what him to say. I’m with him 100 percent and whatever he said it’s down the drain now and I’m here playing again.”
Last season Kean batted .282 with 127 hits, 50 RBI and nine homers, a career-high. His brother, and the coaches in Durham, have talked to Wong about keeping his confidence high, which doesn’t seem to be an issue for the MiLB.com all-star. In 2018, his first full year in the Bull City, Wong ranked 9th in the International League in runs scored (65) and was 10th in hits.
This off season the Rays talked to Wong about having good at-bats: moving runners over, driving in runners, not to worry about home runs. Basically, what he’s done during his time in Durham so far. Wong said even he was shocked by how well he played last year, and admitted he was a little surprised he was back in Durham again. As a player, he doesn’t have a timeline for when he’ll give up his big-league dreams. He’s only 23, plenty of time to continue his impressive stint in Durham and catch the eyes of the Rays.
“I’ve always been that guy that’s always been overlooked,” Wong said. “I love the grind and I’m just going to keep on playing and stay here until eventually I get that chance.”