Former ASU baseball coach Tracy Smith returns to Valley in MLB Desert Invitational

Tracy Smith, right, coached seven seasons at Arizona State before he was let go. Now the head coach at Michigan, he said, “I appreciated my time,” in Tempe. (File photo by Jordan Kaye/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Tracy Smith is coming back to the desert, but there will be no reunion between the former Arizona State baseball coach and the Sun Devils.

Still, there will be some familiar faces for Smith, now the coach of the Michigan Wolverines who will be in the Valley for the MLB Desert Invitational beginning Friday. The six-team field includes the Arizona Wildcats and Grand Canyon Antelopes.

Smith was fired in 2021 after ASU was eliminated in the Texas Regional, and while his dismissal was controversial, Smith’s impact on the Sun Devils program is tangible.

“I appreciated my time (at ASU),” Smith said. “I met some really good people and made some friends for life out there. Everything happens for a reason. I was excited to be in a new part of the country, and I found my retirement community.”

After ASU fired Smith, Ray Anderson, Vice President for University Athletics, said he “did not have the confidence that the program was going to elevate further and would not meet our needs going forward. It was the body of work over the seven years, ultimately, that led to the decision.”

In Smith’s seven seasons at the ASU program’s helm, 2020 had the potential to be the best. Before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season, ASU had a 13-4 record, had won 11 of 12 after a slow start and appeared to be on track to host an NCAA Super Regional at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Despite its small shelf life, that 2020 team set a Sun Devils record for producing the most picks in the first four rounds of the MLB Draft. Five ASU players were taken in those rounds led by Spencer Torkelson, who was picked by Detroit with the No. 1 overall selection in the draft.

Torkelson, who made his major league debut and played in 110 games for the Tigers in 2022, was one home run shy of the NCAA freshman home run record in 2018 with 25 long balls, and he led the Pac-12 in home runs in 2020 when the season was canceled.

“We had a really, really good team that year. Not only were we talented, but we played well with each other,” Torkelson said. “Our expectations were to win the national championship that year.”

Smith believes that the 2020 team could have been the culmination of all the work he and his staff had done to that point during his time at Arizona State. He says coaching that team was the most fun he had while in Tempe.

The Sun Devils went 33-22 and made a regional in Smith’s final season. Smith believes that the athletic department never looked at the 2020 team’s success when it came to his firing.

“I was disappointed that, administratively, my boss never acknowledged the team,” Smith said. “There was never any acknowledgement, and it was just dismissed. You had to have your eyes closed if you didn’t recognize it.”

On top of the five players selected in the 2020 draft, there were an additional 25 Sun Devils who were drafted by major league organizations during Smith’s tenure.

Torkelson and others who played for Smith at ASU believe their transition from college to the professionals was much easier than expected because of Smith’s approach.

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Alec Marsh played for Smith from 2017 to 2019 and was selected 70th overall by the Royals in the 2019 MLB draft. Marsh was a part of Smith’s first recruiting class and said that going to ASU prepared him for pro ball.

“I thought it was an easy transition,” Marsh said. “(Smith) ran us like a professional team while we were there. I honestly thought pro ball was much easier than college when I first got there because the physical demands of college are much more than the pros.”

During the 2019-2020 school year, Smith’s team accumulated the program’s best cumulative grade point average in more than a decade. The team had a 3.19 grade point average that school year.

In his first two years as coach, Smith had 19 players receive Pac-12 All-Academic Honors, which tied the school record. From 2016 to 2018, 18 more Sun Devils joined the list.

His approach is the same in Ann Arbor.

“Not only do we want to develop baseball players, but we want to develop skills that will translate once the uniform comes off,” Smith said. “If we don’t do that in the coaching profession, then we are doing a disservice. That is something that is always important to us.”

Smith clarifies his academic intentions during the recruiting process. His former ASU players said he didn’t budge once they’d signed, either.

“He made it clear that not every one of you is going to become a major league ballplayer. He knew that you were here to become a better player, but to also get an education,” Torkelson said.

“He didn’t take it lightly when someone missed a class. He definitely made you pay.”

Despite Smith’s rugged coaching style, he developed a close bond with many of his players that remain. Smith stays in contact with them as much as possible.

He says that during the offseason, he had dinners with multiple players and their families, including Hunter Bishop, the 10th overall pick in the 2019 draft. Smith and Torkelson see each other regularly now that both are in Michigan.

“We’re all human beings,” Smith said. “We’re going to bond with some people more than others. There are a lot of guys from over the years at Arizona State that I look forward to as they become adults.”

His former players have noticed the difference between Smith as an ASU coach and the friend he has become since they moved on from Tempe.

“When you play for him, he puts the coaching mask on,” Marsh said. “He doesn’t relate with you as much because he has a job to do and doesn’t want emotions to get in the way of decisions.

“I had a good relationship with him when I was at ASU, but it’s gotten even better in pro ball because now we can talk as people instead of coach-to-kid.”

Smith literally left his mark on the Sun Devils program on the diamond – he was instrumental in upgrades made to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, where the Sun Devils now play their games. The school moved the team from Packard Stadium to “Muni” in Smith’s second season.

The facilities at Phoenix Municipal are a far improvement from where they were in 2015. When the team arrived at the stadium, there was an out-of-date batting cage and only a couple of pitching mounds.

Today, Phoenix Municipal Stadium has an indoor batting facility, a patio for fans to hang out and seats more people.

“The upgrades that happened while I was there were the vision of our staff,” Smith said. “When we first got there, it just did not match the image and reputation of what Arizona State baseball should be.”

The upgraded amenities improved Smith’s ability to recruit top players from across the country. Many players mentioned that they chose ASU over other schools because of the program’s reputation and facilities.

Now a year past his days on the Arizona State job, Smith is ready to return to the place he called home for seven years. Or at least, to stadiums nearby.

His first game at the Michigan helm comes against Fresno State Friday at Sloan Park in Mesa, the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, which is the spring training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, will also play host to MLB Desert Invitational games along with Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark on the Grand Canyon University campus.

Michigan won’t play the ‘Lopes during the invitational, but the Wolverines do face Arizona Sunday at Salt River Fields.

“Even though I’m not there, it’s still kind of cool to see our fingerprints around the program,” Smith said of his days at ASU. “I’d like to think that we left the place better than we found it.”

Lucas Gordon LOO-kiss GORE-din
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Lucas Gordon expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business and digital audiences. Gordon has interned at The Arizona Republic.