Murakami era comes to end at UH
By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
Before he became baseball coach at the University of Hawai'i in 1971, Les Murakami once promised his wife that he would be a millionaire and be able to retire by age 41.
Instead he took up a hobby: coaching baseball.
Advertiser library photo
During his 30 years at the University of Hawai'i baseball coach, Les Murakami compiled a 1,079-570-4 record.
Advertiser library photo
Last Thursday, Murakami granted The Advertiser an interview at his 'Ainakoa home of 32 years, but declined to be photographed. A framed certificate on his American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame induction and several other baseball mementos line a ledge in the stairway of his two-story home with an unobstructed view of Diamond Head. They are the only signs of baseball in his home.
It was an off-day from physical therapy for Murakami, who turns 65 on June 1. The circumstances obviously have changed. Instead of sitting behind his desk at Rainbow Stadium, usually dressed in slacks and a golf shirt, he was in a wheelchair, wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
He appeared a little frail, but attentive. At times, he lifted his left leg on the leg rest of the wheelchair. Otherwise, he gestured freely with both arms.
He needed time to ponder questions posed at him, but he delivered coherent responses, even reverting to some of his usual lines like "No question..." or "no doubt in my mind... ."
Murakami has always been candid. That has been his demeanor. He has not lost a beat.
Reminded of the goal he told his wife, Dot, he was asked if the coaching career was the right decision. His response was revealing.
"I'm not sure if it turned out for the better," he said of his decision to coach. "But maybe I wouldn't be in a wheelchair now. You can't look back at how things turned out. I'm not one to look back."
If there was pressure on the job, Murakami hardly showed it. But concern did come from his wife in the middle of his career.
It wasn't until 1986 that Murakami's coaching job became full-time. His day job was as a facility housing-communications manager for UH's Auxiliary Services. Yet, it was the decision to give up that job to become the full-time coach that stressed Dot, whose concern was his job security. They had two children, daughter Kris and son Robbie. Both became lawyers.
"I was really fearful of the contract and things like that," Dot Murakami recalled. "But he said, 'Dot, even if I were a part-time coach, I'm still going to coach 100 percent. I'm going to do it the same way I had been doing it full-time or not. I put pressure on myself; other people didn't put pressure on me.'"
The university has yet to announce his successor. But sources told The Advertiser that Arizona State's Pat Murphy was offered the job.
Murakami said he was not part of the selection committee. At the time of his retirement announcement, he said he was supposed to help in the selection. But the screening of applications came following his stroke.
"Whoever they pick, I have nothing to do with it," he said. "Whoever it is, I hope he does well."
(It should be noted that Murakami was upset at Murphy for canceling a series against UH for the 1995 season, Murphy's first season at ASU after upgrading Notre Dame's program.)
Murakami said he will continue to follow Rainbow baseball.
"The games are on TV, so one way or another I'll get to watch them," he said.
There have been numerous memories for Murakami, but two evoked emotion from the usually stoic coach. And they weren't about big games.
He was asked if Rainbow Stadium was like his second home.
"No question," he said. "More than my second home. I spent so much time over there. You know right now it feels kind of strange not going down there.
"(Now, his voice quivering a little). No question, I think my two kids grew up at Rainbow Stadium."
Asked if he would make an appearance Saturday, promoted as Les Murakami Night, he said he wants to. It will be the first time he would see his players and the public since his stroke.
"It's my last chance I have to thank fans for 30 years of support," he said, again a choke in his voice.
Murakami might be leaving the coaching ranks, but definitely not the game. Baseball is his life.
"When I get well I didn't say 'if I get well' I said 'when I get well', baseball will again be a hobby," Murakami said. "I'll spend a lot of my time helping young boys and girls develop their game. Hopefully, I can make them better ball players."