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Thursday, October 30, 2014         

FURTHER REVIEW


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Murakami Stadium's maniacs are always on duty in the front row

By Dave Reardon

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In his job, Wes Pratt puts out blazes. In his hobby, he fans the flames.

"My specialty is I'm the guy who gets on the umpires," says the 33-year-old firefighter from Salt Lake. "The most frustrating thing is when you see them make an anticipation call. You can see the arm start going up before the play is completed."

Pratt attends every University of Hawaii home baseball game that doesn't conflict with his HFD work shifts. The former Punahou and Colorado football player describes himself as a big UH baseball fan and unashamed heckler — not just of the umpires, but also of the Rainbows' opponents. He and his friends have a perfect spot from which to do that. Their season tickets are along the front row on the third-base line, right behind the visiting team's dugout.

"We're trying to get the whole front row," says John Phelps, a 55-year-old contractor from Kailua. "When we started out there were five of us. Then it went to seven, now it's 10."

Two seats remain. Pratt says someone else has them but never shows up. There's a waiting list for the Third Base Front Row gang.

THE REGULARS INCLUDE Pratt; Phelps; Phelps' wife, Sue; and children Bobby, Bo, Samantha and Georgi; HPD officer Brent Sylvester; construction worker Darcy Freitas; and UH grad student Bryce White.

They have their own custom-designed T-shirts. They do their best to get under the skin of the visiting players and coaches. They are loud and proud.

But they try not to be mean-spirited. Sass with class.

"It's a fine line, no doubt," says Phelps, who played baseball at Harbor College and Long Beach State. "We try to get in their heads without being really nasty. I think we succeed."

"That's the fun of it," says Pratt. "Anyone can sit there and throw out cuss words. Not only is that disrespectful and something you don't want to do around kids, but it's not witty."

Pratt relates the time when a Texas pitcher was blanking Hawaii.

"John would stand up as he came in each inning and offer him his beer, telling him he had to loosen up and throw the ‘Bows some pitches to hit. The guy would just smile. But sometimes, stuff like that gets to them.

"There are three reactions from the players. One, no reaction. Two, they laugh and play along," Pratt adds. "The third reaction, when they get mad, that's a big mistake. Because then they're gonna get it the entire game. That's when you see the guy tighten up, the cap comes down lower."

OVER THE YEARS, attendance at the 4,312-seat Les Murakami Stadium has had its high and low points. As you might guess, it depends mostly on the fortunes of the team. But other factors contribute to a solid average of 3,068 per home date this season.

UH is the defending Western Athletic Conference champion, the Rainbows have won nine of their 15 home outings, the lineup usually features three or four players with local roots, and opponents have included highly ranked Oregon and Texas. Tonight UH opens a series against perennial powerhouse Cal State Fullerton.

Soon after becoming UH athletic director in 2008, Jim Donovan lowered ticket and concession prices. That decision has paid off, as it helped baseball produce more revenue than its expenses last year for the first time since Murakami's tenure.

Phelps — whose fandom goes back more than 20 years to when Murakami was coach — and Pratt agree with many who say the crowd is younger and more interactive now. Visiting coaches as well as UH coach Mike Trapasso have noted the changed atmosphere, too.

"It's affordable now," Pratt says. "You can bring your family now. And it's a good, exciting atmosphere. The student section across the field from us is more active now, too. They even brought the ‘D-Fence' sign you see more at football games."

The quiet, older folks still enjoy the games — many from the more sedate upper deck.

Meanwhile, the Third Base Front Row group does its thing, starting chants and throwing taunts ... with the UH opponents dugout in front of them and the visitors' fans behind them.

"We tell them, ‘No disrespect, but we ARE going to razz your players,' " Phelps said. "We end up partying with the parents and swapping jerseys with them."

"Jerseys we'll never wear," Pratt says.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.






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