Sports Illustrated: He’s A Honolulu Lulu (1979)

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“It’s really amazing,” says Don Dennis, manager of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks. He saw Tatsuno whip the Panners, perennially one of the best amateur teams in the U.S., in a 1977 game in which Tatsuno allowed only five hits.

He’s A Honolulu Lulu

Derek Tatsuno, the Rainbows’ sensational lefty, has won 20 of his last 21 decisions

When the major league teams sit down in June to make their draft choices, one name will be in a lot of heads, if not on a lot of lips. Many clubs are believed to be interested in obtaining the services of a 21-year-old Japanese-American pitcher who most often is referred to as “that kid from Hawaii” or “Derek Whatsisname.” To be sure, all general managers know the name; it’s just that some of them don’t know how to say it. Actually, the pronunciation isn’t that difficult. The name is Tatsuno, spoken, Hawaiian-style, as Tot-SUNE-oh. It’s worth remembering. Even practicing.

Tatsuno, a junior at the University of Hawaii, is a 5’10”, 175-pound lefthander whose pitching is the main reason the Rainbows have a 61-6 record so far this season and the No. 1 ranking in the nation. Until he lost 12-4 last Sunday to Cal State-Fullerton, he had won 20 games, a streak that dated back to May 2, 1978. That victory string is only one figure in a set of career statistics that really should be chanted instead of reduced to type.

Most baseball people have never amounted to much as linguists—remember the youngest Alou’s struggle to be called “Hay-soos”?—but they read numbers well. They started scrutinizing Tatsuno’s when he was still pitching for Honolulu’sAiea High. At the end of his senior year, he had an ERA of 0.34 and a career record of 27-1. The Reds drafted him then, but Tatsuno, one of the sanest southpaws ever to toe a rubber, felt he wasn’t ready for pro ball.

Instead, his specialty at Hawaii is horticulture, and he has a 2.8 grade average. In the spring of 1977 he won 11 games for the Rainbows, lost two, struck out 146 batters in 116 innings and had an ERA of 2.87. In 1978 he fell off to 9-3, but lowered his ERA to 1.45 and whiffed 161 batters in 112 innings. Before Hawaii’s recent series with St. Mary’s of California and Mississippi State, Tatsuno’s ERA after 14 games in 1979 was an incredible 0.76. But he then allowed 11 runs while beating the Gaels and the Bulldogs, pushing his ERA up to 1.20.

Tatsuno said his fastball had no zip and his curve hung in those games, but though he needed some ninth-inning heroics by his teammates to pull out a 6-5 win against State and keep his streak alive, he did have enough on the ball to strike out 23 batters in the two outings. And lest the visiting mainlanders think that Tatsuno’s reputation was some island fantasy, he came back to beat State 10-0 in a second game. In that victory he fanned nine and allowed only five hits, one of which should have been scored as an error. Even with his loss to Fullerton, which slapped him for five runs in the fifth inning, Tatsuno has now won 75 high school, college, summer league and college all-star games. He has lost 12. “He’s about the best I’ve seen in 13 years of coaching,” says Mississippi State skipper Ron Polk. “I’m on the All-America committee, and he’s got my vote.”

To that, Tatsuno’s coach, Les Murakami, adds the title of “the No. 1 college pitcher in the world,” which is no idle boast. The last two springs Tatsuno pitched for the U.S. college all-stars in their annual series with the Japanese college all-stars. He was named outstanding pitcher both times and is now a celebrity in his ancestors’ homeland. It may not be long before he becomes famous in the U.S. as well, because the team that picks him in the upcoming draft will probably have to give him a major league contract to get him to sign.

Tatsuno may be ready for the bigs right now. His repertoire is remarkably diverse—a hopping fastball, a late-breaking curve, a deceptive changeup, a sneaky slider and a screwball that still needs work.

It would seem that any pitcher so sophisticated at such a tender age must have had some high-powered coaching. But when Tatsuno is asked who taught him how to pitch, he says, “I don’t really know. I started playing baseball when I was six, mostly with neighborhood kids who were three or four years older, and when I was eight, I started at shortstop in Little League ball. It was Coach Kagawa’s idea to make me a pitcher—funny, I can’t remember his first name. But he didn’t show me how to pitch. I just sort of knew.

“In high school, Coach Anzai”—a pause and a brief grin—”that was George Anzai, helped me with mixing up pitches and trying for spots, but he had been a catcher and didn’t tell me how to throw.” Tatsuno looks a little embarrassed. He is a well-mannered, respectful young man, and the last thing he wants to do is claim for himself all the credit for his pitching. Still searching, Tatsuno says, “Coach Les [Murakami] has been great, and so has Coach Jim [Fujimori, an assistant coach who handles Hawaii’s outfielders and helps with the pitchers], but they really don’t talk to me much about pitching.” Murakami, a onetime pitcher, agrees, saying, “Derek had it all when he got here.”

Is it possible that this Sansei Japanese boy, the son of Nisei parents—Tatsuno’s father Herbert is a maintenance man at a Honolulu department store—was born with an innate ability to pitch masterfully? Apparently. “It’s really amazing,” says Don Dennis, manager of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks. He saw Tatsuno whip the Panners, perennially one of the best amateur teams in the U.S., in a 1977 game in which Tatsuno allowed only five hits. “He has the build, the easy pitching motion, I can believe that. But the pitches, the tempo, all those fine touches, how could he have been born with them?” Tatsuno, it seems, may be that rare athlete, the genuine natural.

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