By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
When a young Joey Estrella started the University of Hawaii at Hilo baseball program back in 1976, he knew there would come a day when he’d retire from the job he loved and hand it off to a new coach.
This morning Estrella officially announced that he will coach this year — his 37th at the helm — and then step down at the end of the 2013 season.
“After 36 years at UHH, I feel it is time for a change for me and for the program,” Estrella said. “Although I am in good health and still have a passion to coach and help student-athletes, it is time to pursue another chapter in my life.”
Estrella, age 62, enters this coming season at UHH with an overall 648-897-5 record.
“It is also a time for the program to have a new vision and a new path with hopes of continuing to make the program successful on the field and in the classroom,” he said. “I am proud that baseball has had a good graduation rate and I hope the program can continue to attract good overall student-athletes.”
Estrella said he wants to continue working in some area, but he noted he would explore his options after the season. He said current UHH athletic director Dexter Irvin would be in charge of hiring the new baseball coach.
“The significance of this special individual, and his influence on young people, cannot be overstated,” Irvin said. “Coach Estrella has been a wise, caring and influential leader in the lives of our student athletes. He will be missed on the baseball field and in our department.
“The values and ethics that Coach E lives by, and has shared with us, will continue to be felt for many years.”
Under Estrella, the Vulcans initially participated in the NAIA for 17 years, switched to the NCAA Division I level in 1993, and then moved to the D-II level and conference play in 2006.
While in the NAIA, Estrella’s teams appeared in three NAIA World Series, captured five NAIA District championships, and participated in 12 consecutive postseason playoffs. He also earned a handful of coaching honors during UHH’s successful runs.
Estrella’s 1983 team had a school best 41-10 record and reached the program’s first-ever Area Playoffs. Another milestone in that memorable season was a 2-1 win over the University of Hawaii and Estrella’s collegiate mentor, Les Murakami. Pitcher John Robinson earned the historic win for the Vulcans.
“That 1983 team was special,” Estrella said. “They were ranked as high as No. 6 nationally and everything just fell into place that year.
“It was a talented team, but the players really knew baseball and how to play the game. We had guys like Guy Oshiro at short, Kal Miyataki at catcher and a team captain, and Derek Diaz and Doug Spector were pitchers.”
Diaz became the first Vulcan to get drafted by a Major League Baseball team and Spector later pitched in an independent pro league.
Miyataki went on to graduate in 1985 from the University of Hawaii and eventually returned to work in the UHH athletic department as well as become an Estrella assistant for several seasons. Miyataki currently works as the UHH associate athletic director in charge of athletics facilities and event management. He also coaches youth baseball in the Hilo area is considered a potential candidate to take over the program when Estrella steps down, however, Irvin will oversee the application process and decide on what steps he will take to fill the position.
In 1986, Estrella’s team swept through the Area Playoffs and made the Vulcans’ first appearance in the NAIA World Series. Estrella was rewarded for the team’s success by being selected as the NAIA District 29 and Area 1 Coach of the Year.
“We had three teams that made it to the NAIA World Series,” Estrella said, “and each time that was a special experience. One year, Steven Takushi hit a last inning home run to win a playoff game in Portland to get us to the World Series.
“Another year, we were at Western Oregon in 40-degree weather and wet conditions. We reached the finals and lost the first game 24-14, after starting out with a 10-0 lead. But then in the elimination game in even worse conditions, we came back to win 8-7 against Willamette and get to the World Series.
“And in the other year, we won our first two games to reach the final and had to beat Whitworth, which had 50 home runs that season while we had two coming in. But the air is thin up there and I knew in warm-ups we could hit the ball out. We lost our first game 8-7 to Whitworth but then came back to beat them 4-3. We ended that tournament with double-digit home runs.”
Estrella didn’t want to single out any individual player but instead spoke proudly about the student-athletes and his coaching staff over the past 36 years.
“We’ve had so many great players over the years,” he said. “We’ve got two, Guy Oshiro and Lance Suyama, in the Vulcan Athletic Hall of Fame, and we need to work harder at getting in some more. I’ve been fortunate to have had so many talented players over the years.
“I’ve also had a great time working with so many class people on my staff — they were educators in their own right and understood what we were trying to do at UHH. We didn’t have a lot of long tenures, but that was because they were part-time coaches or volunteers. Still, it was a wonderful situation to be surrounded by good men who cared about the players and wanted to help them.”
In Division I, the Vulcans struggled to beat their more talented opponents and even played one season in the Western Athletic Conference. But Estrella continued to lead on the diamond and his teams took part in many community events, including the Special Olympics (for over 30 years), the Vulcans-Hawaii Baseball School, and as the driving force behind the UHH Blood Bank of Hawaii Drive.
“Our hands were forced to go Division I,” Estrella said. “At that time it was more feasible to play a Division I schedule as an independent, and we received some good guarantees from the Division I teams on the mainland that helped us travel. But we understood from a wins and losses standpoint, it was going to be tough to compete against those teams.
“We ended up playing some of the top D-I teams in the country. One year, we had the 12th toughest schedule in the nation. And playing that one year in the WAC was rewarding, a great experience for our kids.”
In 2006, the Vulcans dropped down to the Division II level and became a member of the Pacific West Conference.
“After playing 13 seasons in Division I, it made sense in 2006 to join the PacWest Conference,” Estrella said. “It was a developing conference and somewhere we felt we could fit in and compete. But now with Grand Canyon dropping out to go Division I, the conference still doesn’t have an automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs. That probably won’t come around until 2015.”
Besides being UHH’s only collegiate baseball coach in the school’s history, Estrella also served as an assistant basketball coach under then head coach Jimmy Yagi from 1976-80, acting athletic director during the 1980-81 school year, and the official AD from 1982-89, when he stepped down to concentrate on baseball and teaching.
In February, 2009, Estrella was appointed assistant athletic director for external affairs and then in October of that same year, Irvin named him assistant athletic director for community engagement with the responsibilities of developing corporate fundraising and a booster club.
Estrella was a multi-sport standout at St. Joseph High School. He began college at UH-Hilo, playing basketball and baseball, which were club sports at the time. He then transferred to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and enjoyed a successful three-year career as a shortstop under the legendary Murakami.
To cap his collegiate baseball career, Estrella was named the first recipient of the prestigious Jack Bonham Award, given to the UH athlete “who excelled in the areas of academics, community service and athletic contributions.”
Estrella earned his B.ED in 1974 and continued as a graduate assistant in the Rainbow program for two years. In 1976, he received his M.ED from UH-Manoa.
Estrella and his wife, Geri, have two adult siblings, son Brandon, 26, of Seattle, and Allyson, 23, of Oahu.