He probably won’t get his wish, but Joey Estrella doesn’t want the day to be about him. He’s already warned everybody: no lei until it’s all over.
But when it is, after Wong Stadium has emptied out Saturday night, after the proclamations have been read, after a few tears have been shed and after all the University of Hawaii at Hilo seniors have been honored, Estrella will make one final call to the bullpen.
He’ll hand the ball to interim baseball coach Kallen Miyataki, turning over the reins of a program that he started then fostered for the past 37 seasons.
Calling himself the “dinosaur” of the athletic department, the 62-year-old Estrella still looks spry and energetic as he throws batting practice. Still, he doesn’t second-guess his decision to retire in December.
“When I reflect back, I’m glad I did it. It’s time for new leadership, new energy and focus,” he said. “There are some things in place in the department that will enhance what we’ve tried to do in the baseball program, and hopefully when Coach Kallen takes over, he’ll have resources and opportunities that we didn’t have.”
The record will read some 650-plus victories and more than 900 defeats, and Estrella likes to joke that he’s the program’s winningest manager … and its losingest.
With a limited budget and recruiting disadvantages, however, he hasn’t measured his success by wins and losses.
Also, let that record show the thoughts of senior relief pitcher Patrick Fletcher, who transferred from Cal State-Monterey Bay and credits Estrella with an invaluable experience.
“It’s been one awesome journey coming from Monterey out to Hilo,” he said. “Coach Joey’s been amazing to me. He gave me a shot when no one else would, and I came in and tried to do the best I could for him.
“He does that for a lot of the guys. A lot of the guys come in kind of struggling, and he turns it around for them and gives them a career they probably never (thought) they could have had. This program has meant a lot to me in becoming not only a better ballplayer but a better man.”
Fletcher, a business major, is on track to graduate in the summer and hopes to become a firefighter. He says it’s no coincidence that all 11 Vulcans with senior eligibility are on track to graduate in the next few semesters.
“(Coach is) the biggest guy I’ve ever met on graduating,” Fletcher said. “That to me was huge. It’s nice to have someone not part of your immediate family pushing you to graduate. He’s someone you go to talk to, and he’ll push you in the right direction.”
Estrella’s swan song as well as the traditional Senior Day festivities provide a meaningful backdrop to a matchup of Pacific West Conference cellar-dwellers.
The Vulcans (8-33, 8-26 Pacific West Conference) start their season-ending series today against Academy of Art (4-27, 3-19) with a 4 p.m. doubleheader at Wong. Between games of Saturday 1 p.m. doubleheader, UH-Hilo Athletic Director Dexter Irvin will honor Estrella by reading proclamations from a who’s who list of Hawaii politicians.
But no lei will be placed on his shoulders, at least not until after the game when the seniors get their last licks.
“They can present everything they want after the game,” Estrella said.
Saying he’s already had his time in the sun, Estrella would much prefer the attention go to his outgoing players. In fact, he doesn’t plan to use his retirement as a motivational tool at all.
“He hasn’t (said), ‘Hey guys, let’s get these wins for me,’” senior reliever Richie Mariano said. “It’s been about the seniors (with him). Everything is for the seniors and not about him.”
Though it would be sweet to send Estrella off in style.
“We have to do something for our coach,” Mariano said. “It’s a priority to get a win (for him). And also for seniors. We want to go out with a bang as well. To end on a good note.”
Mariano will garner the start in the season finale, and he’ll be preceded on the mound by three other seniors: Dane Kinoshita, Gavin Kinoshita and Seamus Yoneshige.
Asked what the program’s meant to him, Mariano pointed to the character of his teammates: “It’s meaningful. I’m happy with the team. We may not have won so many games, but we did it as a team.”
Seniors John Abreu (.330) and Tyler Nitahara (.326) lead the Vulcans in hitting, but Estrella is also proud of the foundation he’s left Miyataki.
Freshman Keenan Nishioka, a Hilo High graduate, has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises, hitting .306 at first base.
“His transition to Division II and our level of competition has been excellent,” Estrella said.
Mariano, of Mililani, Oahu, still has aspirations of playing independent pro ball, possibly this summer, but he plans to return to UH-Hilo in the fall to get his degree in exercise science.
That’s music to Estrella’s ears. Through thick and thin with the Vulcans, he’s always tried to look after his players as if they were one of his own.
“As a father, we can talk to our kids until we’re blue in the face and it doesn’t sink in,” he said. “But if somebody else does it it, it tends to reinforce what our parents say.
“I try to think what the parents would want: to have kids who are morally, emotionally, spiritually, academically, socially and athletically well-prepared as possible.”
Utilizing that same philosophy, Estrella — who still can be seen in action playing for the Honomu Rockets of the Hawaii Kupuna Softball League — hopes to continue working with youth on the baseball diamond. He looks forward to an assistant role that would give him a chance at more specialized position work with players.
But Saturday will be his last as the face of UH-Hilo baseball.
He’s worked for and appreciated the work of five different ADs — not counting his eight-year stint as an AD — and acknowledges that there are countless people to thank, not to mention his wife, Geri, or his children, Brandon and Allyson.
“When you stay in one place as long as I have, you have to thank a lot of people, especially the administration, to keep somebody around for this long,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve done positive for the university.”