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A hidden gem on the islands

Hawaii routinely sells out its 4,000-plus-seat stadium for big games. Courtesy of Eric Sorenson

HONOLULU -- Thirty minutes before first pitch for Saturday's game between Oklahoma and Hawaii, the roadways around Les Murakami Stadium were gridlocked in mind-numbing traffic. That kind of slow-and-go should be expected on a Monday at 5:30 p.m. in Los Angeles, but not on a Saturday in Honolulu.

The ticket attendant at a parking deck near the stadium had a simple explanation for the backup.

"It's just a typical baseball game," she shrugged. "Now, I don't think things have filled up in the parking structure yet, so you should be able to find a spot. Good luck."

She wasn't joking. The first two levels were filling up fast.

At the ticket booth, a long line of fans was waiting impatiently.

"Standing room only tickets remain," a stadium usher near bellowed out to the crowd.

Oh my. That's huge.

When the game started, fans roared at every hit and bemoaned every close call. When Hawaii scored, the sound bounced off the steel grandstand roof and was as loud as any park in college baseball.

Murakami Stadium holds just over 4,000 stadium-style seats in its half-bagel, two-tiered grandstand. And it's rare that any of those seats are empty for a Friday or Saturday night game against a brand name team like Oklahoma.

For Saturday night's game against the Sooners, there were a recorded 4,303 fans jammed in. That was the second-best crowd of the season, falling just short of the opening night game versus Oregon, which pulled in 4,689 fans.

Yes indeed, Rainbow Warrior baseball is a happening. It's been that way since the stadium formerly known as "Rainbow Stadium" was first built in 1984.

"We're an island of just about 1 million people and this is the only game in town," head coach Mike Trapasso said. "Be it good or bad, Hawaii athletics, no matter what the sport, is the front page of the sports page and is the lead story on the nightly TV sports news."

Oklahoma head coach Pete Hughes understood the meaning of this fanatical following the minute he stepped onto the field to trade lineup cards before Game 1 March 12.

"This is [Hawaii's] Boston Red Sox. Their New York Yankees," he said. "This is the biggest baseball show on the island, and I was impressed. This kind of hostile environment will help us be prepared when we go against some of those Big 12 teams on the road. This is a big-time environment."

Hawaii baseball got its start in 1923, a full 36 years before the chain of volcanic islands became a state. But it was always a local game, played against teams like the Oahu Sugar Mill, the Mutual Telephone Company or the Hawaiian Power Works.

In 1971, Hawaii officially began playing NCAA-sanctioned baseball and finished that year 0-4. By the mid-1970s, the Rainbows were playing full Division I schedules against recognizable college names.

In 1977, a local player named of Derek Tatsuno enrolled and changed everything. The All-American pitcher went 40-6 in his three years and set NCAA records for wins (20) and strikeouts (234) in a season, both of which still stand today. With Tatsuno as their ace, the Rainbows went 43-13, 38-14-1 and 69-15 in those three seasons. Ironically, it was the year after Tatsuno left in 1980 that Hawaii made the College World Series and finished national runner-up to Arizona.

Throughout those salad days of becoming a burgeoning national power, the Hawaii baseball team played in a facility with an all-aluminum set of individual bleachers and chain-link fences. It was a glorified high school facility.

Long-time Hawaii radio announcer Scott Robbs, whose father, Don, has been broadcasting games for the past 39 years, remembers the days when Rainbow home games were played in a much more Spartan setting.

"Before they built [Murakami] stadium, my father would be broadcasting games from down the third base line, from dorm room windows," Robbs said, "They had people living underneath the aluminum stands sometimes. It was crazy."

In 1984, Rainbow Stadium finally became a reality, and the crowds showed up right on cue.

From 1984 to 1996, Hawaii finished in the top five in the country in attendance every season. It led the nation twice, in 1986 and 1992, when it sold out an astounding 43 of 47 home games.

The college baseball landscape has changed a lot since those days. Hawaii's crowds have kept showing up year-in, year-out -- the Rainbows have averaged over 3,000 fans per game in each of the last five years -- but instead of that ranking in the top five, Hawaii's attendance figures nationally fell to No. 15 last year.

The SEC has taken over the attendance game and even the West Coast schools have ramped up in the facilities race. Stadiums are getting larger and larger all the time, and programs in smaller conferences struggle to keep up.

This has had an effect on scheduling, as bringing in more established opponents is getting to be more of a chore for Trapasso and his staff.

"It's getting impossible to schedule here now -- just because of the cost of airline tickets and the cost of traveling now compared to what it was five or six years ago," he said.

"Plus, a lot of these teams on the mainland have put a lot of money into their home facilities. So now you come across teams saying they need to play more home games to pay for their stadium, which wasn't the case a couple years ago."

That hasn't changed the Warriors' mentality when it comes to who they want to play in nonconference, though. In fact, a move from the WAC to Big West three years ago has helped, since opponents know playing a series against a team from a high-profile conference can help their RPI.

"We still try to schedule as tough as possible," Trapasso said. "We know that it can help in recruiting to tell a player he can come here and play in a big-time atmosphere and play against good competition, while we also know playing good teams will be a draw for our fans.

"We can't play Northern-Western-Southern Tech every week because we might only get a thousand fans to the park. But if we're playing an Oklahoma or an Oregon, where we sold out two games in each of those series this year, we know the fans will still come out to the park."

That's the one thing hasn't changed for Hawaii since the mid-1970s: the fans.

Scheduling, recruiting and competing are getting harder and harder for this program, but the fans have proven they will stick it out and keep showing up for Rainbow Warrior games. And they'll be loud too.

"It's a different culture here," Trapasso said. "You have to embrace that Hawaiian culture. But once you do they'll stick with you. And our fans have done that. I've been here for 14 years, so I know we've got a special thing out here on the island."

Eric Sorenson is creator and curator of CollegeBaseballToday.com and a regular contributor to D1Baseball.com.