By Nick Hedges
In his homecoming to Arizona, Diamondbacks outfielder Kole Calhoun has been a bright spot during a difficult, pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Calhoun finished the season tied for third in the National League with 16 home runs and had his 40 runs driven in were good for a tie for ninth in the NL as he set a career-best in slugging (.526).
Calhoun punctuated his resurgence as one of the Diamondbacks’ best hitters when he was named the NL Player of the Week for the week ending Sept. 20 after slugging six home runs, driving in 12 runs and hitting .458 over six games during the week.
However, Calhoun’s name was familiar in Arizona long before his exploits at the plate for the Diamondbacks this season.
He was a standout at Buckeye Union High School before making a stop at Yavapai College in Prescott and then helping Arizona State reach the College World Series in 2009 and 2010.
Pat Murphy, now a bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, managed the Sun Devils from 1994 to 2009 and said Calhoun “always makes his team better.”
“He wasn’t afraid to lead, he wasn’t afraid to go against the tide, and he wasn’t afraid to carry out his mission of helping the team win,” Murphy said. “He was a young man with an attitude that said that (he’d) been empowered to be a part of this thing … He held people accountable and just got the best out of his ability.”
Following ASU’s 2010 College World Series berth, the Los Angeles Angels selected Calhoun in the eighth round of the 2010 MLB Draft.
Even during a brief minor-league journey, Calhoun never strayed far from his home state.
The Angels assigned him to the Orem Owlz of the rookie-level Pioneer League, who play in Orem, Utah, about 45 miles south of Salt Lake City. Calhoun played that first minor league season just a 10-hour drive from Buckeye.
After spending 2011, his first-full professional season, in San Bernardino, California, the Angels skipped Calhoun past the club’s Double A Little Rock, Arkansas affiliate in the Texas League and moved him to Triple-A Salt Lake to begin the 2012 season, still just a long-day’s drive from home.
Later that season, Calhoun made his debut for the Angels. He got 195 major league at bats during 2013, then became a regular in the Angels lineup in 2014.
Despite swatting 140 home runs and driving in more than 450 runners during nearly 1,000 games in nearby Anaheim, the tug of home was strong. Calhoun made his return to Arizona when he signed with the Diamondbacks as a free agent before the 2020 season.
In an interview with 12 News after signing, Calhoun reminisced about his experiences at Chase Field, then known as Bank One Ballpark, when he attended some of the first Diamondbacks games in Phoenix while growing up.
“There was a lot of buzz about how we were about to have a team, and then in ‘98 we finally did,” Calhoun said in the interview. “To sit up there and look out at this beautiful stadium, it was so cool for a little kid, and now getting to play here and call this place home, it’s going to be fantastic.”
Chase Field is a famously friendly hitter’s ballpark, but as Calhoun creeps toward the top of the NL leaderboard in several key hitting statistics, his production has not been confined to his home field.
In his first game back in Anaheim Sept. 15, Calhoun belted two home runs and drove in five runners to help his new team beat his old one as part of his Player-of-the-Week outburst.
“I’m sure it was very emotional for him to step back on that field,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said after the game. “But he helped us win a baseball game by hitting two home runs and collecting a career-high five RBIs.”
Murphy did not seem surprised that at age 32, Calhoun continues to give the Diamondbacks big production.
“Kole does a thing where he keeps adjusting and keeps getting better,” Murphy said. “He plays hard every pitch and just plays the game right. Any manager would love him.”
And he’s already left Diamondbacks followers with some memorable moments.
For instance, during an Aug. 24 game against the Rockies, Calhoun was caught in a rundown and intentionally head-butted a throw into second base. He was called out for interference and Lovullo was ejected for arguing in favor of Calhoun’s deliberate, albeit creative, use of his head.
With the Diamondbacks, Calhoun is surrounded by a core of young players and he got a chuckle that was captured by Fox Sports Arizona when rookie Daulton Varsho’s dive for a fly ball came up short and Varsho face planted into the turf.
It was a light moment in a heavy season, but Murphy said Calhoun takes his job in right field seriously.
“Playing right and being a great teammate is important to him and it always has been,” Murphy said.
Murphy added that ASU’s 2009 roster included some talented players who received more attention than Calhoun, such as pitcher Mike Leake and infielder Jason Kipnis. But Murphy said “Calhoun was the glue” that kept everyone together.
And wherever he has played, Calhoun has gained the respect of those around him.
“It’s genuine, and what you see is what you get from him,” Murphy said. “Any time you get the chance to talk about Kole Calhoun, it’s worth doing.”