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ASU Alumni Develop in the AFL, Make Arizona Home

Photo by Annelise Kofod | The State Press

By Judah Brody

For minor leaguers Spencer Torkelson (Tigers) and Hunter Bishop (Giants) their time in Arizona is more than the fall league, it’s a return home.

Tracy Smith, Head Coach from their time at Arizona State, describes the state as “baseball mecca.” He says they have both purchased homes in Arizona, despite being from Northern California, and plan to make them their residences during offseasons.

“I think it says this place is a special place… especially because Torkelson’s spring training site is in Florida,” Tracy said.

Smith, also once Head Coach for Indiana and Miami University, keeps in touch with many of his former players. They often get dinner, drinks or have conversations about their careers and lives together.

He reconnected with his former players from Indiana and ASU at two of his sons’ weddings in the past year. 

“Last Friday, [Hunter] Bishop was in my [eldest] son’s wedding, stands up and does an unbelievable toast. Somebody, I think my father-in-law, said ‘hey, hit a home run for us tomorrow’,” Smith said.

The next day, the center fielder mashed a 393-foot home run with two-outs and two-strikes in the 4th inning of the 2021 Fall-Star Game.

“Those bonds that you form with them in the player-coach relationship, as they grow into men and have families and children of their own, it just creates another dimension in that relationship,” Smith said.

Smith mentioned that one of his closest friends at the first wedding was an Indiana player from when he was pitching coach there from 1995 to 1996. During his second stint with Indiana (2006-2014) he coached his eldest son, Casey, to the final round of the College World Series. Players from those Indiana teams were also in attendance for Casey’s wedding.

During some of Fall League, one of his sons lived with former Sun Devils and current minor leaguers Bishop and LHP Connor Higgins (Angels).

“These guys are an extended version of our family. Our 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th sons,” Smith said of his former players.

Smith’s time managing Torkelson and the other four players taken in the 2020 draft was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic when he and the team went through “disbelief”, “shock”, and “confusion” like the rest of the world.

“We tried to frame it in a way that it’s a lot bigger than the baseball, but [disappointment] was really the mood of that locker room around that time,” Smith said.

Torkelson was drafted by Detroit with the number one overall pick in June 2020, a year after Bishop was taken 10th overall by San Francisco. In the wake of the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season, both spent time playing intrasquad games with their organizations’ taxi squads.

A right shoulder injury has kept Bishop from a productive time in the minors so far, but he had an encouraging 2021 Fall League to build on.

After breaking the record for largest signing bonus for a draftee at over $8.4 million, Torkelson amassed 431 at bats in 2021 and hit 30 homers while spending time defensively at first and third base. He sprained his ankle on Oct. 20, which ended his fall season and caused him to miss the Fall-Star Game.

“Watching these guys become, in some cases, instant millionaires in the stroke of a pen, the beautiful part is it has not changed their personalities, their egos and who they are,” Smith said.

In 2021, Smith managed ASU to the Austin Regional of the NCAA tournament, before a mutual parting of ways with the team in June. Now 55, he is the CEO of Diamond Allegiance, a partnership of player development organizations “committed to growing the game the right way.”

However, Smith acknowledged that if the right opportunity arose, he would consider a return to coaching.

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