By Bobby Curran.
University of Hawaii baseball head coach Mike Trapasso might not have imagined when he accepted the Hawai’i job in 2001 that he’d be starting his 20th season in Manoa, and there were plenty of people around who would also have been unable to predict that. After all, he was following one of grand icons in Hawaii sports in Les Murakami, and coming after a legend was not going to be easy. Nor did it help that in his first year the team went 16-40. He then averaged 32 wins a year through the end of Hawaii’s stay in the WAC.
The more amazing fact might be that Trapasso ended up coaching at all. Growing up in St.Louis, he was an outstanding high school athlete, playing football, basketball and baseball but attracted serious interest in baseball. A left-handed pitcher, Trapasso led the state in strikeouts – but also walks and hit batsmen. He threw hard, and then as now, a hard thrower who is wild is intriguing for any coach who believes he can be the one to harness the talent.
Trapasso had a good number of offers, and signed with Southern Illinois. Before enrolling, he got cold feet and decided to stay close to home at Jefferson College, a nearby two-year school with a good baseball program. After a couple of seasons there, he signed with Oklahoma State, a perennial power coached by the legendary Gary Ward.
“I wanted to go someplace where I would have a chance at winning a national championship,” said Trapasso. “And they were in the the middle a seven-year run of going to the College World Series.” A spectacular junior year that saw him lead the conference (and finish third in the country) in ERA, and winning a game in that year’s CWS led to him being a second-round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins. After thinking that over, he decided to go back to OSU.
“It wasn’t like now where that pick would bring you a half million or more,” said Trapasso. “The going rate was more like $40,000, so it wasn’t crazy.” But an arm injury hampered him during his senior year, and he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, though this time in the 16th round. After two years with the Braves and a single season with the Cardinals, his velocity was poor, and he knew he couldn’t come back from the arm trouble.
Trapasso moved back to St. Louis with his wife Kathy and they both found jobs. On the Thursday before his Monday beginning at a P.R. firm, he got a call from Missouri head coach Gene McCarter offering a graduate assistant position that wouldn’t pay anything, but would provide money for graduate school. Trapasso turned it down, figuring it wasn’t fair to Kathy, who had supported the couple through the lean years in the minors.
“The more I thought about it, the more I really wanted to try coaching,” said Trapasso. “With Kathy’s approval, on Sunday morning I called Coach McCarter and asked if he’d given the job elsewhere. When he said no, I jumped in the car and drove to Columbia to talk with him, and took the job the day before I was to start a real job, and that was that.”
After three seasons in Missouri, Trapasso landed a job as an assistant at South Florida in Tampa. That area is a baseball hotbed, and the young coach began to make contacts, many of which he maintains to this day. While South Florida was very good in the Metro conference, after three years Georgia Tech of the ACC, hired Danny Hall and he offered the top assistant job to Trap. Over the course of the next seven seasons, the Yellow Jackets won two ACC titles, and Trapasso had all seven his recruiting classes ranked in the national Top 20; one top-ranked class and two others in the Top 10. That led to him being named by Baseball America as the top assistant coach in the country.
And, of course, to his hiring by Hawaii for the 2002 campaign.
”We didn’t really know what to expect,” said Trapasso. “I was familiar with the great traditions established by Coach Les, but it’s hard to fully grasp what the experience of Hawaii will be until you’re actually here.” Coach Trap and Kathy by now had a pair of young sons, Michael and Matthew, who really know no other home. Both graduated from Mid-Pac and the University of Hawaii, and Michael then completed his law degree at the University of Missouri and practices in St. Louis.
The transition to the Big West conference in 2013 was tougher in baseball than in any other sport simply because baseball is by far the conference’s best sport, and UH had problems getting traction there. Finishing in the lower half of the league took a toll in some ways other than the obvious ones.
“I had noticed in the last several years that I had been less healthy, not eating well and putting on weight,” said Trapasso. “Just as important, the joy had gone from the only occupation that I’d ever really wanted.” All of which led to a re-evaluation of priorities for the coach starting with his own health and fitness, and then changing his approach with his team. “As much time and work as we all put in, it’s got to be fun,” Trapasso remarked. “And with last year’s team, we really enjoyed being together, and it showed on the field.”
The 2020season got off to a terrific start, and the team was 11-5 and really finding its stride when the pandemic shut the season down.
“The excitement has carried over to this year,” Trapasso said. “Every starting position player is back, and our top three starting pitchers return. Now we have to rebuild our bullpen, and this could be a special year.”
And one thing remains consistent with UH baseball: On an evening in the Manoa spring, there is no finer place to be anywhere than at Les Murakami stadium.