1980 baseball 'Bows had the world at their feet
Advertiser Staff Writer
After the last of the backs had been slapped, high-fives exhausted and the voices had gone hoarse from celebrating a milestone in University of Hawai'i baseball history, then came the back-to-Earth realizations.
"It was like — 'hey! — I'm not going back (to Hawai'i) for a while, what am I going to do about (caring for) my plants?' " recalled first baseman Howard Dashefsky. "I never thought we'd be gone this long."
The 'Bows had just upset Texas on the Longhorns' field in Austin to win the 1980 NCAA Central Regional and were, of all things, headed to Omaha, Neb., home of the College World Series.
It was an unimagined destination for an improbable team. Dizzying stuff for a group that was young and supposed to be heavily rebuilding.
From a 1979 team that had gone 69-15 and finished 11th in the polls, the 'Bows had lost their All-America pitcher, Derek Tatsuno; the school's career home run leader, Jon Hansen; the career RBI producer, Curt Watanabe and saves leader, Gene Smith. And, their sparkplug, catcher Ron Nomura. In all, UH lost seven starting position players and several top pitchers.
Moreover, a top recruit had signed a pro contract at the 11th hour and head coach Les Murakami had to plug in six freshmen. And, as a bonus, UH would be debuting in the Western Athletic Conference and playing the most road games in school history.
"We lost so many stars and had so many new guys, we had no idea what 1980 would bring," Dashefsky recalled.
THE LONG WAY TO OMAHA
What it brought was the greatest season in men's athletics at UH, a trip to the promised land of the College World Series, where the 'Bows finished No. 2 in the nation (60-18) and, with their run, inspired a commitment to build Les Murakami Stadium.
It was, from the time they boarded a plane following the first WAC championship in school history until they returned to a rockstar airport welcome 20 days later, a period that captured the state's imagination.
The 'Bows, at one point, won eight consecutive postseason games, knocking off seven ranked teams, including then-No. 1 Miami. Much of it played out on a new, still-emerging cable sports network, ESPN.
"It seemed like we were gone 26 days, maybe a month," said Dashefsky, who hastily roused someone back at the Hale Wainani to care for his plants in the interim. Players got friends to check them out of the dorms. Coaches purchased extra clothes. Media hurriedly sought to have money wired to them.
They endured 100-degree weather and a tornado. By the time UH had played — and lost — twice to Arizona for the double-elimination national championship — 5-4 (11 innings) and 6-4 — so large had the bandwagon become that Gov. George Ariyoshi, some legislators and UH regents had been ensconced in the team hotel in Omaha.
All of it played out before not only a statewide audience in Hawai'i but what was, to that time, both the largest single game (15,276) and series (95,406) crowds in CWS history.
WORKING THEIR MAGIC
Murakami has said he had better teams. To be sure, there were larger collections of stars. But none had the long-running magic of this one. The 'Bows sparkled with two no-hitters (Joel Lono and David Smith) but also amazed with their comebacks, like the one that saw them overcome a 10-0 deficit to win, 11-10, against New Mexico and clinch the WAC Southern Division title.
"Sometimes," marveled Murakami, "I didn't even know how we did it."
"We lived in the moment," recalled center fielder Kevin Williams, now in the front office of the Portland Trail Blazers. "We went out there every day believing we could win, having fun."
Relief pitcher Sam Kakazu, now an administrator at Castle High, said, "The thing I still remember was the whole run we went on: the WAC, the regional, Omaha — it was all amazing."
The 'Bows' roster was a fusion of local and Mainland talent; of highly touted recruits and unknown walk-ons. It had few stars — and just one future major leaguer, pitcher Chuck Crim — but a lot of unselfish role players.
And more than a few characters. Portly freshman relief pitcher Alan Lane was known as "Captain Volcano" but was 4-1 in relief. Diminutive freshman outfielder Greg Oniate endured reminders to "not get lost in the grass" but was a 5-foot-5 clutch-hitting machine with 57 RBIs. Freshman pitcher Bryan Duquette had a hot temper — legend had it he once punched a team van — and a hotter fastball with 127 strikeouts in 114 innings.
FRESHMEN STEPPED UP
It was all presided over by a part-time head coach (Murakami) and staff (Nomura, Carl Furutani, Jim Fujimori, Coop DeRenne and Dave Murakami) whose "day" jobs were elsewhere. Much of the team was recruited by DeRenne, a familiar sight at a pay phone with a tower of quarters, and priceless word-of-mouth contacts.
"The thing we didn't know was how the young players, the freshmen, would do," Williams said. The answer was to come quickly and with an exclamation point.
Indeed, the first inkling that this team could be something special came when it took four of six games from perennial power Arizona State in mid-February. In the process, the 'Bows found in two freshmen their No. 1 starting pitcher in Crim, who would go on to set a record with a 15-0 season, and relief ace in Lane, who won both ends of a doubleheader.
Overall, four freshman pitchers — Crim, Lane, Duquette and Lono — went a combined 34-8.
PAVING WAY FOR STADIUM
Individually, and in pieces, these 'Bows hardly struck fear in many opponents. Florida State and Brigham Young had players who individually hit nearly as many home runs as the 'Bows, at certain points, did as team.
At the College World Series a UH parent said Ron Fraser, the coach of No. 1-ranked Miami, told him, "I watched your team play and I thought your outfield looked pretty good. But the infield doesn't have much experience, the pitching staff is too young ..."
Two days later, the 'Bows beat Miami, 9-3.
Three 'Bows — catcher Collin Tanabe, shortstop Eric Tokunaga and third baseman Kimo Perkins — made the all-College World Series team.
The 1980 team's legacy, however, is in the 4,312-seat stadium that would soon rise from the lower campus floor.
When Tatsuno left UH a lot of people thought there would be no use for such a facility. The 1980 'Bows reminded them otherwise and, by the time they left Omaha, the political wheels were in motion.