The University of Hawaii baseball team’s improbable run to the 1980 College World Series Championship game was built on a series of remarkable comebacks.
Now, 40 years later and with the players in their 60s, the ’Bows are girding for another rally.
They were to have been honored in June in Omaha, Neb., on the 40th anniversary at the 2020 CWS in plans put together by the NCAA and the CWS of Omaha Inc. until the 74th annual tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were looking forward to it but when they (the NCAA) started canceling athletic events we knew,” said Sam Kakazu, a pitcher on the 1980 squad who was coordinating UH’s visit. “Now, we’re going to put our energy into 2021 and try to make it bigger and better.”
The climb to the 1980 national championship game, which the ’Bows lost to Arizona, 5-3, was the highest a UH men’s team had ascended in any NCAA tournament until the 1996 men’s volleyball team had its runner-up finish to UCLA. (The 2002 men’s volleyball team had its national title vacated due to an ineligible player).
The NCAA and the CWS Omaha Inc., which hosts the annual tournament, had reserved a special seating section for the ’Bows and their guests for 2020 and had asked for team pictures and other memorabilia to display on the Jumbotron.
The Concord Club of Omaha, which had served as hosts for the ’Bows (60-18) in 1980 had planned a luncheon in their honor for this year.
“They were really putting out the red carpet, and we didn’t even win it,” Kakazu said. But the ’Bows, an unknown and largely overlooked first-time entry in the 1980 field, quickly became a fan favorite for their indomitable spirit and penchant for big plays. They were a Cinderella story that became a darling of what, at the time was a less than a year old cable sports entity, ESPN.
Kakazu said at least 12 members of the ’80 team had planned to be on hand and he was expecting a handful of additional late entries.
“We had players coming from all over,” said Kakazu, a retired teacher. “There were so many wonderful memories and friendships made back then that you still cherish.”
The Rainbows were vast underdogs in the eight-team field that that included No. 1-ranked Miami, Florida State, Arizona, Cal, Michigan, St. Johns, Clemson and UH.
In its first year of membership in the Western Athletic Conference UH dethroned defending champion Brigham Young to earn its postseason bid.
Then, the ’Bows went to Austin, Texas, where they beat three nationally ranked teams in the Central Regional, including the host Longhorns in the finals, to punch their ticket to what would become a 10-day stay in Omaha.
They beat Florida State, St. John’s and Miami before succumbing to the Wildcats who were led by future major leaguer and manager Terry Francona, the CWS most outstanding player.
“Position by position, we shouldn’t have been on the same field with some of those teams in Omaha,” head coach Les Murakami observed later. “We didn’t have anyone on the All-American team and we were the only team that didn’t have anyone drafted through the first four rounds of the major league draft.”
Three UH players, catcher Collin Tanabe, third baseman Kimo Perkins and shortstop Eric Tokunaga, earned all-tournament honors.
“But put these kids on the field and something magic happened,” Murakami said.
Once more, 40 years later and, now a season delayed, they are focused on revisiting where they soared.
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com or 529-4820.