(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
For people of a certain age, a glance at the list of baseball alumnus from Arizona State University can churn up memories of glory days sometimes too easily forgotten.
There’s Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and his old Oakland A’s running mates Sal Bando and Rick Monday. Floyd Bannister, Ken Landreaux and Bob Horner were part of the same generation of former Sun Devils who moved on to the Major Leagues.
For those perhaps a little younger, there is only one name that needs to be seen: Barry Bonds.
And for the younger still, they can find names like Paul Lo Duca, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Andre Ethier, Brett Wallace, Ike Davis and 2010 rookie sensation Mike Leake, a 23-year-old right-hander who went 8-4 for the Cincinnati Reds just one year removed from ASU.
The names shout of history and tradition. But when second-year ASU Coach Tim Esmay talks to high school recruits, dropping Jackson’s or Bando’s name probably isn’t going have much impact. He needs to resort to Pedroia, Ethier, Wallace and Leake, and emphasize the continuity the Sun Devils’ program has shown over its 52-year history.
“Tradition and winning, you can’t hide from that, but it’s been the great constant evolution these guys that have gone through our program have upheld,” Esmay said. “If you look at it, it’s amazing how this thing has continued and I think that in itself is really easy to talk about.”
And there’s a lot to talk about, even when adversity joins the conversation.
When the proud and tradition-rich program at ASU took some hard shots early last spring, the 2010 Sun Devils decided their only course of action was to punch back in the only way they knew how:
Win baseball games, and win them by the bushel.
Less than two months after ASU self-imposed penalties on the baseball program due to NCAA rules violations, the Sun Devils were the Pac-10 Conference champions for the third straight year and were in Omaha playing in their second straight College World Series.
ASU had to vacate 44 of its 49 wins from the 2007 season, as well as its CWS appearance that year. But what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
“It was an incredible ride and it’s a credit to that group of young men that were in that clubhouse that were not going to allow anything to get in the way of the experience they signed up for when they came to Arizona State,” Emsay said of the 2010 group. “They did a great job of just staying really focused into the commitment that any baseball player that walks in the door at Arizona State is being held to.”
The Sun Devils won the 2010 Pac-10 championship with a 20-7 record, rolled through their Tempe Regional with three straight wins, and beat Arkansas twice in the Tempe Super Regional to advance to their 21st College World Series. They lost CWS games to Clemson and eventual national champion South Carolina to finish with an overall record of 52-10.
It was the first season as head coach for Esmay and the first for all three of his assistants – recruiting coordinator Travis Jewett, pitching coach Ken Knutson and assistant coach Mike Benjamin.
“We were all just kind of thrown into the mix, and said, ‘All right, what do we do now?’” Esmay related. “I think that the strong statement was … that the coaching staff was really on the same page and we really worked well together. I had been around these kids and coached them and they already knew me as a guy in the program.”
Arizona State is home to one of the most storied collegiate baseball programs in history. Its 21 CWS appearances is tied for third all-time with Southern California – behind Texas (33) and Miami (23) – and its five National Championships rank fourth behind USC (12), Texas (6) and LSU (6).
Arizona State University was officially established under that name in 1958 (it was formerly known as Arizona State College) and fielded its first baseball team in the spring of 1959. The program has had only four coaches in its history, and Esmay is the fourth with only one season under his belt.
He was preceded by Bobby Winkles (1959-71), Jim Brock (1972-94) and Pat Murphy (1995-09). Winkles won National Championships in 1964, ’66 and ’69, and Brock won in ’77 and ’81.
The Sun Devils won 11 Western Athletic Conference Championships under Winkles and Brock, and 10 Pac-10 titles under Brock, Murphy and Esmay.
They play their home games at beautiful Winkles Field-Packard Stadium at Brock Ballpark, one of several first-rate athletics facilities on the modern Tempe campus. The ballpark – the name incorporates two of the former coaches – opened in 1974 and has seating for more than 4,000.
Esmay bleeds ASU Maroon & ASU Gold. He played for Brock two seasons (1986-87) and was an assistant coach under Brock for four seasons between 1988 and 1994. Esmay left to serve as head coach at Utah for eight seasons (1997-2004) and returned to Tempe as an assistant under Murphy in 2005 before replacing him as head coach to start the 2010 season.
“I’m very fortunate in that I’m (an ASU) lifer,” Emsay said. “I grew up here, I played at Arizona State, I was very fortunate to play for Jim Brock and after that I got a chance to coach for him. And then I got an opportunity to be a head coach, and then come back and coach under Coach Murphy.
“For me, I’ve been able to grow up in the program (and) from Day 1, this program reminds you what you’ve gotten yourself into,” he continued. “I compare it to Notre Dame football or North Carolina basketball – there’s no ‘maybe we can turn this thing around?’ It’s ‘how do we continue to uphold it?’”
Esmay and his staff are able to draw top-notch baseball talent to Tempe not only because of the proud tradition of the program but also because of ASU’s growing academic reputation. Arizona State is the largest public research university in the United States.
“It’s not just a baseball school. You’re coming here to get a great education,” Esmay said. “There are a lot of good things you can provide a young man and it’s not just showing that he can play in the big leagues. The worst case scenario – you get your degree from Arizona State, you’re going to be fine.”
That said, it’s certainly shows no disrespect to call ASU a “baseball school.” Thirty-one Sun Devils have been selected in the ML B Amateur Draft since 2008, including 1st-rounders Wallace (2008), Davis (2008), Leake (2009) and Seth Blair (2010). Six former Sun Devils made their Major League debuts in 2010.
When the fall practice session opened in September, Esmay was greeted by a squad that returns seven starting position players from 2010, including its six top hitters. But the Sun Devils lost nine players to the 2010 Draft – 10 were drafted but catcher Xorge Carrillo decided to return for his senior season – including all three of the last season’s weekend starters and their closer.
Right-hander Blair (12-1, 3.64 ERA) was taken by the Cardinals in the 1st round, right-hander Merrill Kelly (10-3, 4.23) was selected in the 8th round by the Rays and right-hander Jake Borup (11-1, 4.08) was a 23rd round pick by the Phillies. Right-handed closer Jordan Swagerty (2-0, 14 saves, 2.19) went in the 2nd round to the Cardinals.
Right-handed sophomore Brady Rogers (4-3, 2.11) is back with five starts among his 22 appearances last spring. Junior left-hander Mitchell Lambson is also back after going 8-2 with a 2.16 ERA in 39 appearances, none of them starts.
The Sun Devils return six position players who hit better than .337 after playing in at least 41 games. The top guys back are junior infielder Riccio Torrez (.393, 10 HRs, 54 RBIs), junior infielder Zack McPhee (.389, 9 HRs, 14 triples, 64 RBIs), junior infielder Zach Wilson (.349, 8 HRs, 45 RBIs), junior outfielder Johnny Ruettiger (.351) and sophomore infielder Deven Marrero (.397, 6 HRs, 42 RBIs, 156 ABs).
Perfect Game projects Torrez and Wilson as 2nd round picks in the 2011 Draft. All of the players mentioned above performed at Perfect Game tournaments or showcases when they were in high school and Esmay likes the opportunities those type of events provide the young players.
“Kids aren’t as hidden anymore. They’re being presented in such national showcase-type atmospheres, and kids are being presented in situations where a lot of coaches are able to see them on a weekend,” Esmay said. “It’s really made it nice for the kids, because (they) will know by their junior year if they’re really being recruited. It really just allows kids to see where they’re at.”
Now the 2011 season awaits and the Sun Devils will look to jump right back to the top of pecking order while leaving both the successes and adversity of 2010 behind. Esmay said everyone is on board and looking forward.
“It’s an exciting time for me, obviously, growing up in this environment and having the opportunity now to be in the situation I’m at, I’m just really excited at the chance to try to continue what’s been established before me,” Esmay said. “That’s a great challenge but it’s also exciting.”
What follows is a list of players on ASU’s current roster who participated in Perfect Game events while still in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete Perfect Game profile:
Trever Allen – PG WWBA
Andrew Aplin – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Austin Barnes – PG WWBA
Jake Barrett – PG WWBA
Kramer Champlin – PG WWBA
Paul Donahue –PG WWBA
Tucker Esmay – PG National Upperclass
Cory Hahn - PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Zach MacPhee – PG SoCal Underclass
Deven Marrero – PG National/ PG WWBA/PG BCS
Josh McAlister – PG National Underclass
James McDonald – PG WWBA/PG 2010 Grads National
Matt Newman – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Brady Rodgers – PG WWBA
Johnny Ruettiger – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Abe Ruiz – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Riccio Torrez – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Trevor Williams – PG Aflac Showcase/PG National/PG WWBA
If there is a college program that you want PG to do astory on, please feel free to let us know. Email Jeff Dahn at firstname.lastname@example.org.