PEORIA, Ariz. – Willie Bloomquist isn’t a player who gets introduced at a news conference. He doesn’t have Jay Z rapping about him or trying to be his agent. He can’t even return home — as a much-improved player, mind you — without some Mariners fans mocking the move.
Such is the thankless life of the utility baseball player, a role that is always needed but rarely beloved.
Here’s the perfect explanation of the job: To be a successful utility player, you need to aspire to be something greater. It’s more like a soft landing than a desired occupation. No one grows up wanting to play every third day, at a to-be-determined position, knowing that you’ll never get into a rhythm or have enough repetitions to be your absolute best.
But there’s an art, or at least a mentality, to succeeding as a utility player. Bloomquist has learned to make the most of it. At age 36, he returns this season to the Mariners, the organization that drafted the local kid from Port Orchard in the third round of the 1999 draft.
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Five years ago, he left the only franchise he had known, seeking to prove he could handle more responsibility. And he did just that. Then the Mariners made him their first free-agent acquisition of this past offseason, signing him to a two-year, $5.8 million contract.
It was a solid move, especially for a team still full of young players. The Mariners need better bench production. They need veterans who can handle a fairly significant number of at-bats to protect their young players and put the entire team in a better position to succeed. And for a lefty-dominant lineup, it helps to have right-handed bats in reserve when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound. Bloomquist is a career .283 hitter against lefties with a .716 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
At this point in his career, he understands who he is, but he doesn’t accept it. That’s the biggest key to being an effective utility player, he says.
“I strive to be an everyday guy,” says Bloomquist, who has had batting averages of .302 and .317 the past two seasons. “And I think, once you lose that edge to want to be an everyday guy, you’re not going to be as good of a utility guy. There’s a difference between accepting it and not striving to be better and accepting it and aspiring to do better things. I think there’s a right way to accept it and a wrong way to accept it.”
Bloomquist left the Mariners after the 2008 season, a difficult year in which the Mariners lost 101 games. He had to go. He was tired of being perceived as a player who could only handle about 200 plate appearances, with few opportunities to show he could do more. He went to Kansas City, where he played a career-high 125 games his first season, then Cincinnati, then Arizona.
With the Diamondbacks, he experienced his only taste of the postseason in 2011, and he had a significant role on that team. He started at shortstop after Stephen Drew broke his right ankle in late July. It was a tough position for him to handle defensively, but Bloomquist hit .273 when playing shortstop that season, and his average rose to .318 in five playoff games.
Over the past five seasons, Bloomquist has shown he’s better than how he was viewed during his first Mariners stint. He was criticized for not being able to drive the ball and for being impatient at the plate and for not being exceptional at any of the positions he plays (second base, shortstop, third base, outfield). We’re not saying he’s Ben Zobrist now, but there’s value in his skill set. And he’s thrilled the Mariners recognize that.
“He fits the mold pretty good,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He’s a very valuable guy.”
Bloomquist works hard to be decent at various positions. He once carried around five different gloves for wherever he might play. These days, he just has one glove for the infield and one for the outfield. During morning workouts, he does the infield drills and then drifts to the outfield during batting practice. He has a routine, and he works to get better at every position.
Bloomquist says he’s a better utility player because he has learned to embrace the awkwardness of the job.
“You have to learn to play uncomfortable all the time and just understand that you’re never going to really feel great,” he says. “You’re never really going to feel like you’re on top of your game at any one position, but that just comes along with the territory. It doesn’t mean that you’re not good at one spot. It means that because you don’t get to play there consistently.
“And along with that comes an offensive approach that it’s not as if you’re playing every day and have your everyday swing. You’re just missing a pitch, just fouling it back. It’s not because your swing’s not there. It’s just because your timing is just a tick off because you haven’t played in four or five days. Stay within yourself a little bit more. Don’t do the things you would try to do if you were playing every day. Play simple. And that’s helped me.”
That has brought him back to the Mariners, perhaps to finish his career. This time, he’s certain to get more out of a thankless job.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer