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Why Willie Bloomquist left relaxed life to become ASU's baseball coach

'The only place I’m passionate about doing something would be at ASU'


Coach hugging baseball player

ASU baseball coach Willie Bloomquist hugs catcher Will Rogers team after a game against San Diego State on Feb. 17 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics

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April 27, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.

The daily ritual would occur as Willie Bloomquist made his way to his seats at Chase Field.

An alum from Arizona State University would ask him when he’s going to take over the Sun Devil baseball program. A fan would tell him how much he’d like to see Bloomquist back in maroon and gold.

Bloomquist spent five years as a special assistant to Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall, and rare was the night he didn’t hear about his baseball heritage or why he’d be such a great fit managing the Sun Devils.

“I hadn’t really given it much thought before that, but I’d be lying if I said after those several days in a row and several years in a row where people were talking that I didn’t think about it,” Bloomquist said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, the only place I would probably go would be where I’m passionate. I’m not going to be any good at anything unless I’m passionate about it. And the only place I’m passionate about doing something would be at ASU.

“I have a love for this program. It’s the only place I would pour my heart and soul into. I want to see it be successful. And I want to help.”

On June 11, 2021, the wishes of those Sun Devil fans came true. Bloomquist was named ASU’s manager. Less than two years later, he has ASU in first place in the Pac-12 and ranked 12th in the country by Baseball America.

But this story isn’t about records or rankings. It’s about a Sun Devil whose passion for the program runs so deep that he took a job he admittedly wasn’t prepared for and a job he wasn’t sure he could do well.

“He loves putting on that Sun Devil uniform,” Hall said. “His loyalty to the school, his loyalty to the brand, his affiliation with it, his success as a player, all of it just fits.”

Bloomquist’s love affair with ASU baseball – that’s what it is, a love affair – began early. As a high school player in Port Orchard, Washington, he admired the program. And when he arrived in Tempe in 1996 to play for Pat Murphy, now the Milwaukee Brewers’ bench coach, he found a comradery he still treasures today.

“Murph was a master at creating an environment to where the team was bigger than the individual,” Bloomquist said. “No truer words were spoken than when he said, ‘You’re never going to experience a team like this again unless you’re fortunate enough to make it to the postseason in the big leagues.’

“This was really the pinnacle of feeling a part of a team to where we all had one common goal. I think that’s what makes it so special. You’re not playing for personal accolades. You’re playing for one destination and one goal. When you have a group of guys that buy into that, there’s more power in that and there’s passion in it.”

Fast-forward … past Bloomquist being a first-team All American in 1999, a two-time Pac-12 All-Academic First Team selection with a degree in management from the W. P. Carey School of Business … past his 14-year major league career … past his time with the Diamondbacks … to the summer of 2021.

The ASU job is open. Bloomquist is intrigued. But he’s also anxious. He knows baseball, but he’s never coached or managed before. Plus, the college sports world is undergoing a seismic change, with the transfer portal and NIL (name, image, likeness).

He also has to think about his wife and four children. Taking the job means more travel, more headaches, more time away from them. He talked to Murphy, who told him he was a perfect fit, but that the job wasn’t easy.

“He was very worried about it,” said Murphy, who still talks to Bloomquist regularly and is a godfather to one of his children. “And I respected that.”

“I had to decide if I wanted to give up what I was doing,” Bloomquist said. “I had a relaxed life. Did I want to jump back into this? I don’t want to sound arrogant, but my name around here was pretty good. If I don’t do very well as a head coach, I’m going only to screw that up.

“I’m taking on a program with high expectations. But I think in life you have to do things that challenge you and scare you a little bit. The big nerves came from not knowing what I was really getting into. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea what recruiting was all about. I had no idea if I could really lead a group of young men. Am I going to relate to them? And all the administrative work, the rules, the compliance stuff. Am I going to figure this all out?”

Baseball coach walking on field

Bloomquist joined ASU Baseball in the 2021–22 season. Photo courtesy Sun Devil Athletics

Bloomquist said he “didn’t come up for air” his first season (2021–22), in which ASU finished 26-32. But his Sun Devil legacy gave him breathing room with fans.

“I will tell you for a number of years I had always hoped a Sun Devil would become the head coach,” said season-ticket holder Roger Detter, who played on ASU’s 1967 and 1969 national championship teams. “I just think someone who understands the rich heritage and the tradition, and the way Sun Devil baseball has been played for years and years, would be in great position to lead the program.”

Even as the team struggled last season, Bloomquist was passing along that heritage to his players. He held frequent team meetings in which he would talk about the program’s history. He had former Sun Devils like Dustin Pedroia and Ryan Burr speak to the team. He showed video of ASU teams at the College World Series.

He wanted them to know what he did: That putting on the Sun Devil uniform means something significant.

“Just getting us to understand what is expected here,” said sophomore catcher Ryan Campos. “Not that we got away from it, but it needs to get back there.”

The Sun Devils aren’t there yet. But they’ve already taken on Bloomquist’s personality. He never was an elite athlete or the most talented player on the five major league teams he played for. But he worked hard, he was tough, and he was unbowed. Already this season, ASU has 16 come-from-behind victories.

“I can’t think of a player more scrappy than him,” Hall said. “You heard the word gritty all the time, but he really was gritty and blue-collared and just the greatest teammate. That’s who he is. That’s how he coaches, too. He gets that out of his players. He gets the most out of them. I’m not surprised by the success he’s having, and I’m thrilled for him.”

It's a few hours before a mid-week game against Cal State Fullerton when Bloomquist sits down in the Omaha interview room at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the name of the room an homage to the site of the College World Series.

All around Bloomquist are reminders of the program’s excellence, from the world series trophies standing on two shelves to the 22 banners on a wall, heralding each of ASU’s appearances.

But a banner hasn’t been added since 2010, the last time the Sun Devils were in the College World Series.

“That’s why I came back,” Bloomquist said. “I played for the national title my sophomore year (1998), and we were one pitch away my freshman year from going to Omaha. Had we won in ’98, I don’t know if I’d be here.

“There’s a void left in me. I haven’t accomplished what I set out to do at this place. But my biggest desire now is to give these kids the experience that I had. I know how much it meant to me. Playing as a 19-year-old kid in front of 35,000 people for a national title, it’s the time of your life.

“But, again, I’m not doing this to put my name in a headline. I’m doing this for these kids and Arizona State.”

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