June 19, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
The term "utility player" was coined to describe the versatile talents able to plug into virtually every position on a baseball field.
J.J. Putz could very well be baseball's first "utility executive" as a special assistant to Arizona Diamondbacks president and CEO Derrick Hall over the last three years.
Putz, who helped pitch the Wolverines to the 1997 Big Ten regular season and 1999 conference tournament championships before becoming a top major league closer, does a little bit of everything for the franchise he also saved 45 games for on a National League West Division winner in 2011.
He's active in both the baseball and business sides of the Diamondbacks. Putz serves as a part-time coach, and also fills in as a broadcaster. He deals with corporate sponsors, season-ticket holders and fans attending community events. He occasionally watches games with Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, now a member of the club's front office.
"Sometimes in spring training I'll work with the pitchers," Putz said. "I'll also go to our minor league affiliates and hang out with our pitching staffs and watch some games to give reports on what I like.
"We do a lot of corporate sponsor activities and trips where they fly with the team to road trips. We do some in-game suite visits and talk to corporate sponsors down on the field during batting practice. I do all the Diamondbacks' big community events and give input on the big league club -- as much as I want or as little as I want. That all depends on the baseball (operations) people.
"We do a lot of things with schools and the community. The Diamondbacks just went over one million dollars in donations to charities this year, and so this is a tremendous job. Even before I got in the front office, when I was a player here, they were doing this and do a great job of giving back to the community."
The position gives Putz a "spice of life" element few get to experience in workplaces.
He also got involved in the "Diamonds Back" Youth Field Building Program that builds or renovates youth baseball and softball fields in Phoenix and across the state of Arizona.
The "J.J. & Kelsey Putz Field" is a softball diamond at a six-field complex in Phoenix that connects with his wife's dedication to that sport. She was an All-America second baseman in 2001 and played for Wolverines coaching legend Carol Hutchins under her maiden name of Kollen.
"It gives the kids in the community a nice place to go and play the game," said J.J.
They both remain very close to Hutchins.
"Hutch, to this day, is one of our best friends," said J.J. "The amount of alumni that come back for functions is unbelievable, and that's because Michigan softball is such a special experience."
He also remains tight with his college baseball teammates.
"I'm very close with pretty much my entire recruiting class," said Putz. "The guys from our 1997 Big Ten champions are actually coming back for Homecoming this year (for the Oct. 28 game with Rutgers) to be honored. It's pretty tough to say it's the 20th anniversary of our championship (laughter)."
Putz was a starter at Michigan, going 18-11 with 11 complete games and 185 strikeouts over four seasons. The Mariners drafted him in the sixth round after his senior season of 1999. He was drafted in the third round by the Chicago White Sox after his senior season at Trenton, and the Minnesota Twins tabbed him in the 17th round in 1998, but he chose to go to school both times.
"I really push for players to go to school first because of the obvious academic benefits," said Putz, who returned to finish his kinesiology degree in 2010. "But just the experience that you get with teammates is special. Those are going to be your life-long friends forever.
"And I might be biased about Michigan, but it's such a special place. The connections and the network you have at your fingertips from graduating from Michigan is something you don't realize when you're at school. We hosted some of the softball players when they were in town playing, and I told them, 'Take advantage of the network. If you meet any alumni, give them your business card because you never know when you are going to need a contact.' "
Putz said Wolverines pitching coach Ace Adams was the one who had the greatest impact on him as a college player.
"Ace was there my freshman year and I love that guy," said Putz, who came to Michigan after leading nearby Trenton High to a Michigan state championship in 1994 and winning Mr. Baseball in 1995. "He was a hard-nosed guy, and from Day One he instilled hard work and what it meant to wear that (block) M on your chest and what Michigan means."
Kelsey and J.J. were so moved by their college experiences that they've endowed both a softball and baseball scholarship for the Wolverines.
"I would encourage other athletes to do that and give back," said J.J. "It really means a lot to the university."
Putz has been able to rub elbows in Phoenix with La Russa, who won three World Series, six pennants and 2,728 games as a manager.
"Watching a baseball game with Tony La Russa is like watching a baseball game with no other," said Putz. "The things that he sees. Hey, it's no wonder he's in the Hall of Fame. He sees the game differently than anybody I've ever met."
He saved 189 games for the Mariners, New York Mets, White Sox and Diamondbacks over 12 seasons. Putz set a Seattle record by completing 31 consecutive save opportunities and had a "magical" season in 2007, when he made the American League All-Star team for the Mariners and became only the 12th major leaguer to collect more saves (40) than hits allowed (37) in one season.
"Being able to pitch in the All-Star game, and Jim Leyland (of the Detroit Tigers) was my manager in that game, it was pretty amazing just to be around him for that short time," said Putz. "It was just a magical year. We had a pretty good team that year with a lot of great teammates.
"To be able to go with a teammate like Ichiro (Suzuki) to the All-Star Game was pretty cool."
Now, Putz is into his next phase, observing and contributing in so many ways.
"J.J. seems to be well-suited for this role," said Bob Brenly, who managed the Diamondbacks when Putz broke into the majors in 2003 and now works as a television commentator for Arizona games. "Part of it is just getting along well with people, and J.J.'s always had that personality and big smile on his face that lends itself to meeting new people and making them feel welcome.
"He's done a little radio for us and will do a little TV later this year. Our radio and TV play-by-play guys have challenged him to bring three nuggets every day -- things that aren't in the media notes or obvious to fans to dig a little deeper for things."
He's been a baseball jack of all trades, that "utility executive" so valuable to his organization. But has that experience led him to discover a singular calling?
"That's a really great question," said Putz. "I really like what I'm doing now and we have four kids. I feel that I am way busier now than I ever was as a player. Retirement (as a player) is supposed to be relaxing and easy, but we're busy as we could be right now, and go to our kids' sports.
"Doing something different doesn't cross my mind for 12 or 13 years, until my youngest is out of high school. Maybe then I'll feel like I want to travel again, but I'm really enjoying being home and not missing out on the things I missed out on as a player. I'm so lucky and fortunate to be able to do these things. I get to coach my son in baseball and go to my daughters' softball, soccer and volleyball games."
They had twin daughters, Lauren and Kaelyn, 11, and then Ethan, 8. Addison is 6. They have a home in Phoenix filled with kids, love and sports.
"When you have what we have and four healthy kids," said Putz, "what more could you ask for?"
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