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What we learned from Chip Hale’s introductory press conference

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Prior to introducing Chip Hale as Arizona’s new baseball coach, athletic director Dave Heeke said the hiring was the product of a “12-day national search.” But in reality, the top candidate revealed himself almost immediately.

Hale, a former UA star who still holds a slew of school career records, said Wednesday he texted Heeke shortly after Jay Johnson left for LSU to express his interest in the job. He would end up being the second coach from the Detroit Tigers—where Hale had been the third base coach—to leave the team for a college job, following assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz Jr. to Rice, his alma mater.

“When the job came open, when Jay decided to leave, we were walking up the stairs at Comerica (Park), and (manager AJ Hinch) tapped me on the shoulder and was like, ‘am I going to lose another coach?’,” Hale said. “And I had to be honest with him, I said I did text the athletic director and told him I had a lot of interest. He goes, ‘I’m going to lose you.’”

Here’s what else we learned about the 56-year-old Hale during his introductory press conference:

He’s a California native but a longtime Tucson resident

Hale attended Arizona from 1983-87, coming to Southern Arizona from Northern California. He played for the Minnesota Twins (1989-96) and Los Angeles Dodgers (1997) and also had stints in the minors in Florida, Oregon, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin. And since retiring from playing after the 1998 season he’s coached in Arizona, California, Michigan, Montana, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.

But through all of that, Hale made his home in Tucson, where he met his wife Judy and where they had three kids. They still live on the northeast side of town, meaning Hale got to sleep in his own bed when he flew into Tucson on Tuesday. The last time he got to do that on a regular basis during the baseball season was from 2004-06 when he was manager of the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders.

Being able to do that, along with returning to his alma mater, led Hale to refer to Arizona as his “dream job,” albeit the second one he’s had.

“People always ask me what’s your dream job? I got to do it, I got to be a Major League manager,” Hale said. “But, I used to tell them all the time, even my coaches at Detroit: my dream job is always to coach the University of Arizona. I’ve dreamt about this for years and years and years. This is our community. I’ve lived here over 30 years now. I grew up in California but this is my home. These guys have supported me through years and years of professional baseball. My wife has basically raised these guys. Now I can come home. It’s a blessing to come back.”

Arizona is a ‘destination’ job, but not a pre-retirement gig

Hale didn’t leave the Arizona baseball offices at Hi Corbett Field until after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, working the phones to check in with various players, recruits and parents of both while also getting a crash course in the college recruiting game from holdover assistant Dave Lawn.

He has to get back to Detroit at some point to pack up his apartment and get his car back, but otherwise he plans to dive straight into his new job, the first he’s had at the college level after 20-plus years in professional baseball.

“This is important to me,” he said. “It’s not like I just want to come back here and work 9 to 5, this is a 24-hour job. I know this is a 365-day job. In my heart I’m 20 years old.”

Hale said he once before tried to get the Arizona job, in 2001 when the school ultimately hired Andy Lopez, but then-athletic director Jim Livengood told him he was too young.

“I wanted this job for a long time,” he said. “The last time (it was open) I think I was managing in the big leagues, so that was a tough one to leave. I’ve always wanted to come back.”

Hale said there are many pro coaches who would like to coach in college but “these are hard jobs to get.”

“They love what I love, and that’s mentoring kids and making them Major League players,” he said. “We can create something here. I think a lot of us who’ve done professional baseball for a long time really want to take that challenge. I can’t tell you how many players I had a minor league manager, a big league coach, a big league manager that just learned to yearn. And this group is going to be even more aggressive in that way.”

He is eager to recruit

Hale said his passion is player development, something he did from 2000-06 in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league system and continued with in big league stints with the D’Backs (where he was manager from 2015-16), New York Mets, Oakland Athletics, Washington Nationals (where he won a World Series title as bench coach in 2019) and Tigers. Being able to do that even before those players become pros was a big part of his desire to get the Arizona job.

But first he has to get those guys to come to Tucson, something he’s never had to do before. It’s something he’s anxious to learn.

“I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know,” he said. “We’re in the process of hiring a couple more coaches that have done this and know the landscape of recruiting. I’m learning very quickly. I’m hiring people who have done it for years, and I’m going to learn it from them and get out there. It’s something I’m actually excited about. I’m excited to meet the guys.”

Hale said he plans to recruit nationally, looking for players who want to be at Arizona and use it as a springboard to the big leagues.

“This is my destination job, this is a destination location for baseball,” he said. “If you don’t think that, when I recruit you, you’re not going to be a Wildcat. This is where we’re going to grow Major League players. Anybody who is blessed to put this uniform on, I hope, has aspirations of playing professional baseball.”

Holding onto as many 2021 players for 2022 is the first priority

Hale said he had a Zoom call with Arizona’s players on Monday while in Arlington, Texas, prior to his final game with the Tigers. He won’t get to meet them all in person for some time, since most are playing summer ball all over the country.

That includes many of the Wildcats who are in the NCAA transfer portal, all of whom Hale wants back, though he knows that probably won’t happen.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Hale said. “The different passion I’m hearing from guys, sort of (bringing) the band together. Some guys are gonna go, they’re gonna go. We’re not going to make it easy on them.

Hale said Lawn has done “yeoman’s work” keeping things running between Johnson’s departure and his hiring.

“He’s responsible for everything that’s going on right now,” Hale said. “I’m getting in there and learning. He’s calling me at 10 o’clock saying we need to call this parent. We’re going to do the best we can to keep everybody.”

All his MLB players and colleagues knew where he went to school

Hale said he never missed a chance to tell people about his alma mater, going out of his way to point out fellow ex-Wildcats.

“There’s Kevin Newman, we’ve got to watch out for this guy—we’re playing the Pirates—he’s going to hurt us, he’s a U of A guy,” Hale said, grunting and making a face to describe how others would react. “We have so many ex-college players in the pro game, but you don’t know sometimes because they don’t really (talk about it), they’re not as proud as I am. Everybody knows I’m an Arizona guy. I’m always pointing them out across and guys get irritated.”

But that fandom came back to bite him after Arizona went 0-2 at last month’s College World Series, since those losses came to schools where his boss and a fellow assistant went to college.

“Unfortunately, one of our coaches was a Vanderbilt grad and one of our coaches, our manager, was a Stanford grad,” Hale said. “To be honest I took a little beating. I owe some dinners.”

Further evidence of how big getting the Arizona job was for Hale: he said he got more texts from friends, former teammates and former players in reaction to his hiring than after he won a World Series title.

Mentioning Jerry Kindall brings him to tears

With 860 wins, Kindall is Arizona’s all-time wins leader. He led the Wildcats to their first three College World Series titles, retiring in 1996 after 24 seasons in charge of the program.

Kindall passed away in 2017 at the age of 82, and about a month before then he left Hale a voice mail that he still has saved on his phone.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to call him back,” Hale said, his eyes starting to glisten as it did each time he mentioned the man he said “taught me how to catch a ground ball.”

Asked what Kindall would say about Hale getting the Arizona job, Hale said “he would tell me, you’re prepared for this. And to jump into with a passion that you played with, that you coached with at the pro level, and he would tell me he’s proud. And I know that.”

He’ll wear No. 8 because No. 6 was taken

Arizona has never retired a jersey number in baseball, but if it did Hale’s No. 6 from his playing days would be a top candidate. Yet when he makes his coaching debut with the Wildcats next February he’ll be donning No. 8. That’s the number once worn by Jim Wing, Arizona’s pitching coach during Hale’s career.

“I know a lot of people are surprised, but we have a pretty good catcher right now wearing No. 6,” he said, referring to Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Daniel Susac. “So I’m going to wear Coach Wing’s number. To put this uniform on, it makes my heart feel good.”