'I'm not going to be a hermit'
|Video: Les Murakami interview|
By Brandon Masuoka
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Brandon Masuoka
Before his University of Hawai'i baseball program reached the College World Series in 1980, and before construction of a picturesque, on-campus stadium that now bears his name, Les Murakami had to start small.
"I never grew," said Murakami, 70, explaining why he played recreational baseball as a youngster. "Can you imagine, when I was in the ninth grade, I had barely (weighed) 100 pounds and I just barely made 5 feet. So I couldn't play football. I was too short to play basketball."
Despite his small beginnings, Murakami, a stroke survivor, has become one of Hawai'i's best-known baseball legends. He continues to make a big impact in the community, applauding youth baseball achievements, motivating the disabled, and serving as a full-time optimist to everyone he meets.
"I'm not going to be a hermit," said Murakami, who has coached more than 500 players in a Hall of Fame career that stretched from 1971 to his retirement in 2001 following his stroke, and is still very active, attending UH sporting events and public gatherings. "A lot of people, I guess, feel embarrassed so they don't want to go out and meet people. Me, I'm the opposite."
Murakami will be honored Saturday by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii with the Leadership and Achievement Award, recognizing him as a baseball pioneer, who paved the way for future generations of ball players. Along with Murakami, Oahu AJA Baseball co-founder Masao Koike, baseball legend Wally Yonamine and Occidental Underwriters Inc. will be honored at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Tapa Ballroom.
"With the many great (American with Japanese Ancestry) players, coaches and administrators that this state has had, I know the (JCCH) committee must have had a difficult time in making these choices," said Murakami, who as a teenager played in various community baseball organizations. "For myself, I feel honored and very fortunate that I was selected as an honoree."
In a wide-ranging interview at his Halekoa Drive home, Murakami talked about several topics, including Les Murakami Stadium, which he called his greatest baseball accomplishment, and the AJA baseball league, where he played shortstop and pitcher.
"The AJA leagues were so popular in those days," Murakami said. "I played AJA when I was in high school (at Saint Louis). I stopped playing AJA after I came back from college (at Santa Clara)."
Murakami also said he wants to play golf again, and to recover from his stroke suffered on Nov. 2, 2000.
"That's why I'm working so hard," said Murakami, who can rise out of his wheelchair to walk short distances, but continues to strengthen his left side weakened by the stroke. He goes to aquatherapy two to three times a week, and attends rehabilitation sessions with Jerry Ono at Ohana Pacific Rehab Services twice a week.
"Once he sets his mind to something, he's pretty stubborn," said Dot Murakami, his wife of 42 years. "In a way, that's good. Everyone at rehab, they all say, 'I'm so glad he doesn't give up, because he gives us hope.' "
Murakami has also inspired his former players, many of whom schedule get-togethers with their former coach. Last year, Murakami was the guest of honor at the inaugural UH baseball alumni reunion. Recently, former players invited the Murakamis to Side Street Inn near Ala Moana Center to talk story and reunite with former UH pitcher Joel Lono, who returned from Italy.
"That night, when I talked to all of them, I was very happy because they're all doing very well," Murakami said of his former players who gathered at the restaurant.
A group of players have followed in Murakami's footsteps and become head coaches.
'Aiea varsity baseball coach Ryan Kato, a former Rainbow (1987-88), said he learned leadership from Murakami.
"He commanded a sense of respect, and that definitive leadership," said Kato, whose Na Ali'i have won two O'ahu Interscholastic Association titles in his six years as head coach. "He knew what he wanted to be done, the way he wanted it done, and he wasn't going to deviate from it. That's what I take from him."
Kato said he'll never forget playing in front of capacity crowds at former Rainbow Stadium, which seats 4,312, and has landmark Diamond Head in the background.
"Coach Les built that program up so much, we were in the limelight," Kato said. "The stadium was packed. I was in awe. I didn't realize so many people could be in one place at one time. It's something I've never felt before."
Kamehameha varsity baseball coach Vern Ramie, a former UH player (1977-79), said Murakami gave "local kids" a chance to shine.
"The biggest thing — not just for myself, but for other local kids — was Coach Les gave us an opportunity to play Division I baseball," Ramie said. "In the '70s, when the program was in its infancy, for a lot of local kids, it was tough to get into a Division I program."
Ramie said Murakami treated his players with respect and fairness. Ramie, who coached Kamehameha to the 2003 state baseball championship, has taken Murakami's teachings to heart.
"You always knew where you stood with him," Ramie said. "He never pulled any punches. If he was upset with you, he'd let you know it. If you were doing well, he'd let you know it, too. If there's anything I took away from it, I always want my players to know where they stand with me."
Dot Murakami said her husband has learned to "enjoy the moment" in his golden years. That's something he may have missed when he was coaching.
"Right now, he's just working on getting better," she said. "He doesn't have that stress, the competition. In that sense, he's much more relaxed, but I don't think he's satisfied. He would like to be physically able to do a lot of things."
Dot Murakami said her husband always enjoyed baseball, sometimes too much, once delaying the couple's honeymoon 42 years ago to play in an AJA game.
"We got married on Saturday, and he said, 'Dot, we can't go on a honeymoon because Sunday I have a game.' " she said. "I don't remember who won. I think I was so angry.
"I guess baseball was always going to be around," said Dot, who added the couple began their honeymoon on Monday. "It was always baseball, baseball, baseball."
Dot said her husband had big goals, some of which were outrageous and unnecessary. In his mid-20s, Murakami told his newlywed wife he was going to make a million dollars and retire at the age of 40.
That goal changed after he began coaching UH baseball in 1971.
"When he accepted the full-time job, I said, 'What happened to the goal? How are you going to be a millionaire being a coach?' " Dot asked, tongue-in-cheek. "He told me, he's changed his goal to the (College) World Series."
Murakami reluctantly took over the program in 1971 — UH had little money, and no baseball field at the time — and built it into a Division I powerhouse. In his 30-year career, Murakami compiled a 1,079-570-4 record.
For his baseball accomplishments, his blunt honesty and his contributions to the state, Murakami is still embraced by the public.
Whenever the Murakamis go out, well-wishers gravitate to the former coach. The outpouring of support amazes and overwhelms his wife.
"I don't understand what other people see in him," Dot said. "They say, 'He's done so much,' To us, he's just dad. He's just himself. He's never going to change."
Reach Brandon Masuoka at firstname.lastname@example.org.