On a ball field in north Scottsdale, surrounded by a team of 10-year-old’s, you’ll find former professional baseball player Kaipo Spenser teaching a sport he loves. Standing at an intimidating height of six-foot-three, and behind an ominous set of sunglasses, this larger-than-life coach hides a story of triumph and tragedy. From the highs and lows of his baseball career to embracing the distinction of “coach dad,” Kaipo and wife Jennifer speak candidly about family, baseball and why, after all these years, they still believe in the game.
Born to Pitch
Growing up the youngest of seven on the Hawaiian island of Maui, you’d think surfing would be his sport. But Kaipo, raised in an extremely sports-driven and fiercely competitive family, heard the call for baseball, not the beach. In his small town of approximately 15,000 people, and sheltered by ocean in every direction, life on the island was simple and a bit isolating.
Playing hoops or picking up a bat and ball, for Kaipo, was his only outlet as he dreamed of discovering the mainland, experiencing the world, and the novelty of such things as snow. As he juggled time between his basketball and All-Star baseball teams, he developed a fast ball that would prove to be his ticket off the island.
“I think it’s every little ball player’s goal to play at the next level,” says Kaipo, crediting his high school baseball coach as being one of the most influential in his life. “At the time, I realized I could have a future in this sport, and became set on playing collegiate baseball…I opened some eyes and started receiving letters from scouts and college coaches,” he adds.
Turning down scholarship offers elsewhere, Kaipo walked-on as a pitcher at Arizona State University. “My parents wanted me to truly base my decision on happiness, not money,” recalls Kaipo. “ASU has one of the best baseball programs, a program rich in tradition… but it was a gamble and I can’t thank my parents enough for giving me that opportunity.”
Kaipo’s gamble paid off during fall ball, as he received a scholarship to continue wearing ASU’s maroon and gold—before his freshman spring season began. As a new member of the Sun Devils in 1994, the team went to the College World Series (CWS). The following year, he was chosen to play with Team USA, ultimately winning the 1995 National Baseball Congress World Series.
“Pitching in the CWS was awesome…it was a pretty emotional ride,” says Kaipo. “I was blessed to be on some great teams with really good guys, and anytime you represent your country is a huge honor.” Shortly after, Kaipo was honored with the ASU Freshman of the Year Award, named ASU’s Pitcher of the Year in 1995, was chosen Pac-10 All-Conference, and named All American by Baseball America.
Big League Dreams
By 1996, Kaipo was drafted by the Cleveland Indians. “Draft day was bitter-sweet,” he remembers. “I was back home on Maui with my family. I was projected to be a top 10 pick.” Due to a lingering elbow injury, Kaipo slipped to the 16th round. “I wasn’t really thrilled,” he says. “Part of me was happy about getting an opportunity to play professionally, but I was disappointed and depressed about not staying healthy.”
“It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit.” —Kaipo Spenser
Despite nagging aches and pains, his career was now full-throttle, meanwhile, much like a romance novel, across a crowded room his eyes locked onto former ASU student turned Scottsdale Philanthropic Realtor Jennifer Noelani Witham—whose family is also from Hawaii. “I knew my wife was the ‘one’ when I met her in college,” he says. “With her, everything just felt natural and right.”
Married within a little over a year, and expecting their first child, it was time for Kaipo to hit the road, playing for the Class-A Kinston Indians followed by the Columbus Redstixx. Jennifer would either await his return, or with child in tow, follow the team bus from city to city. “It was not a glamorous life,” says Jennifer. “But it was 100 percent based on our trust and true love for one another. It takes a lot of faith and support.”
Chronic pain became almost unbearable as Kaipo’s pitching arm continued to break down. “It was very frustrating,” he says. “My arm could never seem to stay healthy.” After two elbow surgeries and shoulder surgery, this baseball career was coming to an end.
Kaipo was ultimately released in 2000, joining the Valley Vipers bullpen of the Western Baseball League in his final days. “Minor league baseball is a difficult road to navigate…luckily, I had a very supportive wife who did her best to keep my spirits up.”
Jennifer recalls this time as being fraught with raw feelings. “The word ‘baseball’ was not spoken in the home,” she says. Kaipo needed to heal physically as they both healed emotionally. “But, we had to believe in the bigger picture,” she adds. “Everything happens for a reason and sometimes you don’t understand God’s plans.”
During the healing process, and to the Spenser’s delight, their two young son’s Kainoa and Keanu got the bug for baseball. Kaipo picked up his glove once again and headed back to the mound, this time playing the position of coach. “I never pushed either of them to play,” he says. “But, there were always bats, balls and gloves laying around the house, as well as pictures and jerseys hanging up on the wall.”
“Comeback” as Coach
For the past 10 years, Kaipo has coached from little league to high school, volunteering between travel club teams and the baseball teams of Scottsdale Prep—even teams his kids don’t play on. “I really enjoy teaching the game, whether it be basic drills and skill development to pitching grips or setting up a hitter; it’s all fun,” he says.
“I had great coaches my whole life and have taken something away from each of them,” he adds. “But, the main thing I pass along is the importance of being a ‘team.’ It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit.” With Kaipo at the helm, his teams have won division championships and state titles. “It’s not surprising to me that he’s this successful,” says Jennifer. “He’s a great coach and he genuinely cares about the kids…to see him on the field with our boys is one of those priceless moments that melt your heart.”
Baseball’s Life Lessons
Recently, his Cal Ripken team representing Scottsdale won the State Championship at the 10U level. During his coach’s speech, while holding back tears, he said this win was sweeter than any victory he had ever experienced. “The team went from being on top of the world to playing for survival,” he explains.
“They could have easily given up, and I would have understood. But they played from their heart. I could not believe eight and nine year old’s could show so much drive and determination. Unreal! To see those boys battle and fight was amazing.”
It was in this moment, “coach” became “student,” as Kaipo was reminded of how a childhood game can teach some of life’s most important lessons. “They really taught me a lot that weekend.” Adding that, “Young players with big baseball dreams must have confidence in themselves. Baseball is a game of failure. You need to trust and believe.”