Manaea brings Samoan attitude from gridiron to diamond

His bloodline emanates from American Samoa — a small island nation known as a hotbed of elite-level football talent.

However, it wasn’t NFL Hall-of-Famer Junior Seau who paved the way for Sean Manaea. It wasn’t Troy Polamalu or even up-and-coming star Marcus Mariota. Manaea, instead, found his way to baseball becoming one of only a handful of players of Samoan descent to wear a Major League Baseball uniform.

The Oakland Athletics starting pitcher is well aware of the NFL lineage linked to his ancestry. And he brings that highly athletic and competitive pedigree from the gridiron to the diamond.

RELATED Talking Poly: Q&A with A’s pitcher Sean Manaea.

Part of the pedigree that has helped Samoan athletes excel on the football field is a warrior spirit. The ferocious mindset, and open willingness to battle, that is associated with he and his brethren is something Manaea said he harnesses when on the mound:

“When things are going well, I have that ‘no one is going to get a hit off me’ mindset. … Sometimes, when people get on base, it kind of takes over and I’m like ‘you guys are not going to score.’ I’m going to get these two or three hitters out, whatever it is. … I have that ferocity, that passion.”

Not only does that warrior spirit help him day-to-day, and at-bat to at-bat, it helped get him on to the mound. And stay on it.

Since childhood, the 24 year-old has wanted to be a baseball player. It was his dream. So when asked in middle school what his career aspirations were, the answer was clear.

But the History teacher who discovered that dream provided a reaction the 13 year-old couldn’t have expected.

Told to pick another dream, because he was “not that good,” Manaea did some soul searching. When he looked inside, that Polynesian drive was there to answer.

The lefty now uses the experience as inspiration at every ebb, saying he holds it within himself, although it is always fighting to get out.

As he acknowledges, the key to making the most of that drive is learning to control it. Something he admits is still a work in progress:

“Yeah, I mean, you have to have that warrior mindset, you know. … It’s crucial. It helps — It has been there ever since I was a little kid. …. It has really been huge for me, and I feel like it does come from the Polynesian side of me.”

Another natural gift the rookie had to maximize through hard work is the one perhaps most commonly associated with descendants of the south pacific — size.

Nearly 6-foot-4 his senior year in high school Manaea was a slender 180 pounds, according to his college coach Rick Heller. Needing to beef up to improve upon his velocity — then in the mid-80s — the Indiana State Sycamore spent every day in the gym.

Now, standing 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Manaea adds an intimidating stature and Samoan-afro (“Sam-fro”) to his deceptive sidearm release and mid-90s heater.

The summation has taken a skinny kid receiving little attention from college scouts to a dominant collegiate pitcher who garnered consideration for the first overall pick in the draft. And, finally, a top-tier prospect for whom the A’s could no longer generate reason to keep in the minor leagues.

Using his impressive natural tools, which have been fine-tuned through years of hard work, Manaea hopes to not just make a name for himself. He strives to open a pipeline for young Samoan ballplayers.

Born in Valparaiso, Indiana, Manaea proudly proclaims himself “half-Samoan-half-Hoosier.” His father, though, was born in the most prolific of Samoan football breeding grounds — Pago Pago.

To the surprise of the hurler, only one baseball field was seen in a recent trip to the nation’s capital. It is his belief that baseball could grow in the South Pacific, should an interest be triggered:

“I know there is going to be some ball players, but football is the big sport out there.”

Of his trip he added that his recognition as a Samoan major leaguer holds great importance.

“I went and visited American Samoa in 2014. … When I got there, I was talking to family members and they only knew of one other Samoan baseball player (Tolia “Tony” Solaita) who made it to the bigs. So, to me, that’s a huge deal.”

As he gains foothold in the game, the “Throwin’ Samoan” plans on using his access to Samoan athletes in order to create that interest. He has even considered the possibility of a program to take part in future World Baseball Classics.

For now, however, the young fireballer will have to settle for being an inspiration to Polynesian kids who are being veered away from football, due to the threat of significant injury, and towards America’s greatest pastime.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.