Murakami's vision became reality
By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
Where everyone else saw a parking lot, Les Murakami envisioned paradise in the truest sense of the word.
Paradise defined is "an enclosed park." For Murakami, that would be Rainbow Stadium. The house that Les built. The home that long-time Murakami backers and legislators are hoping the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents will name after him.
After 31 years as coach of Hawai'i's first Division I baseball program, Murakami is calling it career. A stroke suffered on Nov. 2 denied him an opportunity to coach this season. He will be honored Saturday, the final game of the season and the end of the Murakami era.
In a way, Murakami's story is similar to that of the main character in Mr. Holland's Opus. After a reluctant start, Murakami just couldn't get let go of his passion: coaching baseball. He opened the baseball world for Hawai'i's youth. He affected lives of those who played for him and even those he coached against. He made people believe they could accomplish their goals.
"Look at all the people he has touched or worked with," said former Rainbow Joey Estrella, coach of the UH-Hilo Vulcans the past 25 seasons. "It is really widespread. That's the measure of a man. His family has always been there to support him in the early years and toward the end; Dot (wife), Robbie (son) and Kris (daughter). It's been a family effort. When it is said and done, it was Les and his family that did quite a bit for the program."
When then athletic director Paul Durham and assistant AD Jack Bonham looked into a 34-year-old manager of UH's Auxiliary Services Department, they knew they needed a mover, a shaker, a man with vision. They could not have found a better man. Long-time friend and booster club president Richard Sato can attest to that.
"He was like (New York Yankees manager) Joe Torre," Sato said. "Managing a ball club is not just teaching players technique. It's like running a business."
Murakami won like Torre on the diamond in the Junior AJA League. His Sheridan club captured consecutive titles from 1963-1965. For $1,500, he bought a franchise in the Senior AJA league in 1966. His teams again won three straight titles from 1970.
Although Murakami was hired just to get the ball rolling, his heart got the best of him. He returned for another year because "I felt sorry for (the players)." Of course, he returned for the next 29 seasons.
By now, Murakami's vision was looking beyond each one-year contract. He didn't have a scholarship to give out until right-handed pitcher Gerald Ako hit the scene after a brilliant career at 'Aiea High School. It was Murakami's first and only scholarship at the time.
But the man who had promised his wife he'd be a millionaire by age 41 knew how to survive. He had more connections than United Airlines. Although he could not find financial aid for the rest of his players, he did the next best thing. He found them campus jobs.
Baseball was grass roots at its finest. When the Rainbows took a road trip in 1973 to the Riverside (Calif.) Tournament, Murakami and his wife stayed at the home of then UC-Riverside coach Gary Adams, while UH players stayed at the homes of UC players.
When UC-Irvine came to Hawai'i the next year, Murakami used his military connections to get Adams' team housing at Fort DeRussy. The teams then had picnics at Ala Moana Park. Adams went on to become coach at UCLA, where he has been since 1975. The Bruins have been regulars on the Rainbow schedule since. Next year, they will make their 10th trip here in the last 11 years.
"Les and I have become good friends from the time when his family stayed at my house," Adams said in a telephone interview from UCLA. "We arranged it so they wouldn't have to pay for lodging, save them some money. That's what happened. It was a good deal for both of us back then."
Murakami is not one to look back, but he doesn't forget where he comes from. Ed Cheff attested to that. He coaches NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State, small potatoes to some big-time NCAA Division I programs. But an equal, as far as Murakami was concerned.
"The biggest thing about Les was that he was a big-time guy and never acted like a big-time guy," said Cheff. "Sometimes in the athletic arena, that's hard to find. But I really admire him for that. When you coach at a small school, you appreciate that more."
Fresno State coach Bob Bennett had known Murakami even before the Bulldogs became members of the Western Athletic Conference. Bennett and Murakami were coaches on Team USA. Bennett recalled when USA dropped the first three games of a series against Japan.
"He told them we're not playing with our personality, that we're playing like we don't want to offend the Japanese," Bennett said. "He said we have to play American style. He just stuck behind the players."
Team USA went on to win the next five games to take the series.
Bennett said he did get to visit Murakami for about 30 minutes when the Bulldogs were in town in April.
"The people of Hawai'i should be proud of him," Bennett said.
For present-day players Scooter Martines and Danny Kimura, Murakami will always hold a special place in their hearts.
Both opted to play on the Mainland upon graduating high school in 1997. Martines, though recruited by UH, signed with Texas Tech. But he decided to return after one season.
"I'm totally grateful for that," said Martines, who has red-shirted this season because of a shoulder injury and will complete his senior season of eligibility under the new regime. "He gave me the opportunity to play in front of my family and friends, playing at a stadium where I grew up at. It's too bad I wasn't able to play (in Murakami's) last season, but I'll be back and he'll always be in my mind."
Kimura was not recruited out of high school and ended up at Nebraska before transferring two seasons ago. He echoed Martines' thoughts.
"It was always my dream to play for the Rainbows," Kimura said. "I got that experience and it's been fun."
Carrying the torch
Estrella and UH acting coach Carl Furutani are Murakami's only former players to follow in his footsteps. Both were able to obtain their master's degrees while gaining coaching experience as graduate assistants.
"Through his efforts and guidance, I'm doing what I'm doing," Estrella said.
When the Vulcans first started under Estrella, they were an NAIA team, which means their games would not matter to the Rainbows when it came time to measure a team's strength of schedule.
"He had no reason to play me," Estrella said. "But he knew we were trying to develop a program. I will always be grateful for that."
Furutani said Murakami was "like a father to me."
"He has done so much and not only for me, but for a lot of people," Furutani said. "It's not only the (playing) experience, but the values he taught. The importance of doing things certain ways.
"He's a winner, always a winner, and a wise man."