Back At It

Chip Hale starred for Arizona baseball as a player. Today, he’s the coach — chasing another title.

Spring 2023
A photograph of Chip Hale and Dave Heeke

Chip Hale and Dave Heeke

Like many baseball lifers, Chip Hale ’87 has been all over. Coastal California, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, western Montana. Detroit for half a season and, before that, the nation’s capital, where he served as bench coach for the 2019 World Series-winning Washington Nationals.

And, of course, Tucson, the place he never seems to leave for long. Hale, coach of the University of Arizona’s baseball team, once suited up in Wildcat red and blue. That was the 1980s, when Jerry Kindall, Jim Wing ’58 ’68 and Jerry Stitt ’68 ’72 ’93 guided the program. Kindall served as head coach, Wing as his associate; Stitt provided counsel within the batter’s box. In 1986, Hale’s junior season — an infielder, he set the Arizona record for career walks and hits — the team got to Omaha, host city of the College World Series, and took the trophy home.

The seven-year Major League Baseball vet would like to repeat the feat, but this time from the dugout, shaping his players’ on-field experience as Kindall, Wing and Stitt molded his.

“When you’re coached by really good coaches and people,” Hale says, “you always want to come back and do what they did, because they left such a great impression on me.” He calls the chance to work with his players “just a fantastic opportunity.”

Hale played his last collegiate baseball game in 1987 and last suited up in the big leagues — wearing Los Angeles Dodger blue — 10 years after that. He last worked in Tucson as manager of the Sidewinders, then a minor-league affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, from 2004 to 2006.

Over the years, Hale’s watched college sports — not only baseball — morph, but he observes constants amid the change. “Kids are kids,” he says. They get after it at the plate, on the field. They take classes, get used to life apart from family. “You don’t know from day to day where their minds are,” he says.

The changes, though: Since Hale’s day, to be a college athlete has become a more malleable thing. His players, he says, can change uniforms more easily, heading to the transfer portal if consigned to the bench. Arizona’s coaching staff tries to be honest, he says, about a recruit’s likelihood of playing a starring role. Not that the staff always knows. Arizona’s team, Hale says, features walk-ons who now start. Scholarship amount — no one on the team is offered a full ride — doesn’t say much about stature.

Baseball, after all, is an “equivalency” sport, allotted a set number of scholarships for a set number of players — in this case, 11.7 awards to be divvied up among 27 “counters,” though Hale has a roster of 39. As such, he has plenty of walk-ons, who play their way on to the team without athletic aid of any size.

A second-year coach, Hale says he inherited players with a strong work ethic from Jay Johnson, who departed for LSU after the 2021 season. And he’s recruited athletes with the same willingness to push. Arizona finished 39- 25 (16-14 in the Pac-12) in Hale’s first year on the job, advancing to the NCAA regionals, where the team fell to Ole Miss.

This year and after, he’s looking for more. His players, too. They’re looking for what he, Kindall and the rest found back in ’86 — a big old banner.

“It would be probably the cherry on top for my career in coaching,” he says. “To come back and now be a part of this program again and bring it back to Omaha and bring the trophy home — probably for me, pridefully, it would be even more important than winning the World Series.”

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