It’s not a stretch to say JJ Putz is the most successful active Wolverine in professional baseball.
The Arizona Diamondbacks closer is enjoying the 11th season of his big-league career. He spent six seasons with the Seattle Mariners where he was an All-Star in 2006 before moving on to the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Diamondbacks in the last three years.
Putz hails from Trenton, Mich. and was drafted out of high school in the third round by the White Sox but turned down a contract to come to Ann Arbor. He was drafted again after his junior year in the 18th round and a third time after his senior year by Seattle in the 6th round.
He lived in West Quad down the hall from Tom Brady his freshman year and led the Michigan baseball team to the NCAA Regionals his senior season.
The Michigan Daily got in touch with him in June to discuss his time at Michigan and his life in the major leagues.
The Michigan Daily: How did you like your time at Michigan and how did being on the team there prepare you for professional ball?
JJ Putz: My time at Michigan was probably the best time of my life. I’ve got lifelong friends that I met there and I was fortunate enough to meet my wife (then-Michigan softball player Kelsey Kollen) there.
As far as getting prepared for pro ball, I think having the program that Michigan has helped, as far as the weight and conditioning programs that we grew accustomed to there. The travel, that’s the hardest thing in baseball. Being a cold weather team, we always had to travel for spring break. And the overall facilities that we had there that we had at our disposal definitely was something that helped me once I got to the big leagues. I already had a routine as far as lifting and running. I think that, coming out of high school, took me a while to get used to.
TMD: What was your best memory on the team, on or off the field?
JP: My sophomore year I was pitching when we clinched the Big Ten against Ohio State. And I got the last out and just seeing the mob on the mound. And being at the bottom of that pile, seeing the faces on all the guys and knowing how hard we worked to get to that point, that was definitely a memory that I’ll remember.
TMD: What made you want to go to Michigan and what was the recruiting process like?
JP: I think, deep down, I always wanted to go there. But I took a trip to University of South Carolina and I really enjoyed it. I thought that’s where I was going to end up going. And then once Bill Freehan and Ace Adams, both coaches at the time, recruited me, sat down with me and talked to me about the Michigan experience and what it means to be a Michigan man, that pretty much sealed the deal for me. I really believe that deep down, I always wanted to go there. I think South Carolina was good to see what was out there, but when it came down to making a decision, it was really a no-brainer.
TMD: You were a third-round pick out of high school; was there an urge to play professionally at that point?
JP: You know, there wasn’t. I didn’t really feel like I was ready for that next jump. I don’t think I was mature enough for it. I think by going to college, it allowed me to grow up, not really too fast. There’s not a second that goes by that I regret not signing. That was the best decision I think I’ve ever made in my entire life.
TMD: You stayed all four years unlike a lot of people, did you think of leaving after your junior year?
JP: I think I might have, but I blew my knee out that year. I still got drafted junior year by the Twins and they had a really good offer. But once again, I think I made the right choice. I really didn’t want to go into professional ball in rehab and that would have been the case. I decided to stick around my senior year and I think everything worked out.
TMD: In the minors, you had been a starter until you got moved up to Tacoma (AAA) and they moved you to reliever. Did you welcome that change and was it a hard transition?
JP: It was definitely a hard transition because that’s all I had been doing my whole life — starting. In 2003 they decided to move me to the bullpen. It was probably the best thing for my career because in 2003 the Mariners’ five starters didn’t miss a start. It was like the first time in 100-something years that a team had kept the same rotation throughout the entire season. Had I been starting, I probably wouldn’t have been called up and who knows what would have happened after that. It was something I was a little nervous going in to, but once I got to Tacoma and was pitching well, I embraced pitching out of the bullpen and I still love doing it.
TMD: When you finally did break in to the majors in 2003, what was it like and how was that first major league game?
JP: It was pretty crazy. We had an off day in AAA and my parents had flown in because I was living with my aunt and uncle in an area close to Tacoma. And I was with my parents and I got a phone call from an unknown number. It was my AAA manager. For some reason I answered it, I wasn’t going to and I finally did. He asked what I was doing. I told him my family was all here and he said, ‘Pack your bags, you’re going to the big leagues.” There was silence and then he said, “I’ll call you back in a half-hour with your info.” I got off the phone and my dad was like, “Who’s that,” because I must have had a weird look on my face. I said, “That’s Dan Rohn.” And he said, “Oh, what’s he want?” “I’m going to the big leagues.” It was just a big screaming, exciting day. I flew all the way back to Cleveland for my first game. I didn’t pitch in Cleveland, went to New York. Didn’t pitch in New York, flew back home to Seattle. The next day, their closer Kazuhiro Sasaki was coming back off the DL so I figured I was probably going back down. Thankfully I got to pitch an inning and two-thirds that last day in the big leagues. My parents, my wife, everyone was in town to see it so it was pretty special.
TMD: Is there anything about being in the majors you can’t understand until you’ve been there?
JP: I don’t think you can understand the scheduling and how bad it is, until you’re actually here. Perfect example, we played a night game on Thursday in Pittsburgh. Then we left for a hotel in Miami at three in the morning, had to play that night and then we had two night games and a day game today and then stay here and play a Monday night game and then fly back to Arizona and play the next day. The travel is just brutal. It wears you down if you don’t take care of things the right way.
TMD: Obviously you’d like to win a World Series by the end of your career, but are there any other personal goals you have?
JP: No, I don’t have any personal goals other than staying healthy. Where I am in my career, I put those personal goals way in the back burner and I just want to get to the playoffs and get to the World Series.
TMD: How much do you keep in touch with the Michigan baseball program now?
JP: I talk to Coach Maloney once in a while. He’s busy and I’m busy. Usually I come for a football game at least once a year. Whenever we’re back in Ann Arbor, I always make a point to go to the baseball office to see the guys.