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Hawaii-Hilo's Estrella retires from baseball

By Cindy Luis

LAST UPDATED: 10:37 a.m. HST, Dec 18, 2012

Baseball is a game of inches.

The strike zone differentiates a ball from a strike. The white lines define fair and foul. Those yellow poles in the outfield determine a round trip back to home plate or a return to the plate for another chance.

And the ball itself? It seemingly can take as many different bounces as there are stitches. Eighty-eight if you're counting.

It is no surprise, then, that Joey Estrella has often wondered about those inches, those lines, those bounces. Some 37 years ago, he could have easily stayed on Oahu to teach physical education rather than return home to Hilo and start the Vulcans baseball program from the ground up.

The pitch Estrella saw from then Hawaii-Hilo athletic director Ramon Goya wasn't that juicy but it was intriguing enough to take a swing. It stayed fair. It turned into a home run.

But Estrella has decided that this will be the final season of walking out of the Hawaii-Hilo dugout to turn in a lineup card. The 61-year-old former shortstop for Rainbows coach Les Murakami announced his retirement Friday.

"I've been thinking about it for the last couple of years," he said in a telephone interview. "If you had asked me 37 years ago if I'd make a career out of coaching, I would have said no. I wanted to be a P.E. teacher.

"I've stayed because I've enjoyed it, beyond the winning. It's the players and people I've worked with that brought me back every year. I still have the passion, but I think it's time for a change for both me and the program, time for a new vision and focus."

Estrella enters his final season with a 648-897-5 record, a career that includes three NAIA World Series appearances, five NAIA district championships and 12 consecutive postseason appearances through 1992. Under the St. Joseph School graduate's watch, UHH has run the competitive base paths from NAIA to NCAA Division I independent to its current membership in the NCAA D-II PacWest conference.

"We've played some great teams, played against some of the best players out there who have gone on to the majors," Estrella said. "One year (as a D-I independent) we were 12th nationally in strength of schedule.

"It was an exciting time. I may have gone from winning 60 percent of my games to not doing as well, but we played against some of the best players and teams. Those are the best memories, of my players and the coaches I call friends."

He recalled one game against Wichita State and legendary coach Gene Stephenson that went extra innings. After cleaning up the field, Estrella was enjoying the postgame camaraderie when he remembered: "Oh, yeah, I have a flight to catch. I wore my uniform on the plane."

Estrella originally played basketball for the Vulcans, but transferred to play baseball for the Rainbows. He was the first Jack Bonham Award winner in 1976, the most prestigious award given by the Hawaii athletic department. It represents athletic, academic and community service achievements.

Estrella also was a graduate assistant under Murakami. It was a chance meeting with Goya while playing pickup basketball in Klum Gym that changed his life.

"At that point, I didn't have any big plans and everyone on the Rainbow baseball staff was part-time," Estrella said. "This was an opportunity to start a program and it sounded interesting. I never thought that I'd being doing it 37 years later."

Estrella also has served as the Vulcans assistant basketball coach (1976-80), athletic director (1980-89), and assistant athletic director for external affairs (2009), and has been the assistant athletic director for community engagement since 2009. He said he doesn't know if he'll continue to work in the athletic department or pursue other interests.

"My wife (Geri) has a honey-do list," he said. "I'm leaving my options open. I'd like to still work and to stay active with the community.

"I'm real grateful for the opportunities (UH) Hilo has given me. I've been blessed."

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