Murakami still having a ball
HE says he was born with a ball, and with most folks you would take that as a story, just something to say. But not with this man. With this man, somehow, you think it must ring true.
"Everybody remembers," Les Murakami says. "I used to go to my grandmother's house. And I used to tell her to throw the ball and I'd hit the ball. And I was young at that time.
"So I'd break a lot of stuff in the house."
And he chuckles. That laugh. Those eyes.
They're honoring him again. Of course they are. How many times over the years? "Quite a few times," he says. That happens, when you've coached the University of Hawaii to 1,079 wins.
Saturday, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Tapa Ballroom, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii is honoring "three baseball legends." Murakami, Oahu AJA baseball and softball organizer Masao Koike and former 49er and Japan Baseball Hall of Famer Wally Yonamine. They weren't kidding about that lineup.
"Sometimes I wonder how come I'm in this group," Coach Les says.
They should have seen it coming, when he was born with a ball.
Les Murakami has loved baseball for so long he can't even remember how or when or where it started. He just always did. He didn't become a baseball player at some point. He just always was.
No, you know when coaching happens.
"When I couldn't play in the (AJA) leagues because I had played in a higher classification," Murakami says. "I had no choice but to coach."
And did he have a hard time?
"Well, not really a hard time," he says, "it's just that I didn't know what I was doing."
That changed, of course. Murakami calls himself a "history buff." He studied everything. Asked everyone. When he got to UH, when they played all the greats, he did the same. He asked the masters.
"A lot of these things I learned from trial and error more than anything else," he says. "I got caught in their trap!"
Soon, he was setting them. Before we knew it, he was one of the greats. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly how to coach.
"For me I always prided myself in the fact that, No. 1, I'm not a good guy, but I'm an honest guy," he says. "Whatever I do I've done it honestly. If I say something, to me, my word gotta be gold, because if it's not, then you're worth nothing. ... Same thing with the team. If I tell them, whatever I tell them, I will never bend down and change, no matter what. I've always said honesty is the best policy."
Wait a minute. What do you mean you're not a good guy?
"Yeahhhhh. Huh huh huh."
That laugh. Those eyes.
Everyone knows the story about the orange, how when Murakami first started at UH there was so little money he borrowed uniforms from his Sheridan AJA team, which wore orange, green and white. And a look was born. Even when Hawaii was a power, even when there was enough momentum that a stadium was built, the Rainbows always wore orange in memory of those early, hardscrabble days.
Hawaii never forgot.
"Well, yeah," Murakami says. "I felt that orange was lucky for me. I won so many championships with the orange. I felt that, why not keep it?"
"You should have come to our house 40 years ago," his wife, Dot, says. "Forty years ago if you had come to our house, the carpet, all green. The furniture was all orange. Orange and green, oh, boy. It was so bright."
It was a lucky house.
"At one time," Murakami says, "all the clothes that I wore was green or orange."
Murakami is telling a story of coaching in the old days, against the old rivals, the chess games, the back and forth. Going against that rascal, San Diego State's Jim Dietz.
"That guy was funny because he wouldn't think anything of trying to beat you any way he can," Murakami says. "Like if you were to go up and ask him, 'What pitcher you using?' You know. He'd tell you, 'OK, I'm going to use a left-hander.' So he might use a left-hander, you come out the first inning. And he'd have a left-hander on the mound, no question. The guy might throw one or two pitches and he'd bring his right-hander in. You know, that kind of stuff."
Do you get upset with a guy like that? "No, I didn't care," Murakami says. "Because I caught him in the end."
Oh, those were fun days. Dietz tried that trick once -- he didn't know who he was messing with. "What he didn't realize," Murakami says, "is I had seven switch-hitters."
The Cream Rises To The Top
The world series. The 1980 College World Series. Hawaii on top of the college baseball world. Playing for it all.
This was where they had gone, together.
"What was it like?" Murakami says. "Fantastic. Because we finally made it, you know?"
They always thought they were going back.
"As far as the university was concerned, it was to win the national championship," he says. "That was the only goal I had. And from the start, when I first started coaching at the university I had that goal. And when I ended I still had that goal. And there's not very many goals I haven't achieved. And this was one goal that I tried very hard, but I never achieved it.
"I came close," he says, "but I never achieved it."
Forever Their Coach
"I go to watch them, you know," he says of his beloved 'Bows.
He still wants to see them do well, of course. Last season, he knew immediately the team would be good. It wasn't being hopeful. He could see it. He knew.
"You're a coach forever, I think," he says. "So if I look at a game I always look at it as a coach."
Is that hard? Being a coach but not a coach?
No. Well ...
"If there is any doubt in my mind, if somebody tells you they don't do it, they're crazy," he says. "Don't tell me they don't second guess. I second guess all the time. But I just keep it to myself."
Oh, he'll always be a coach.
Just last week, he saw a bunch of the old players. Sam Kakazu called him, said Joel Lono was in town, and soon he and Dot were down at Side Street Inn surrounded by all the guys.
"Fantastic," he says. "Especially, like that night when I found out how well they're doing. Gotta make me feel good."
He was still their coach. He'll always be their coach.