MILL CREEK — From the first day he picked up a bat and ball, Brent Lillibridge played baseball with passion, determination and, above all, an unrelenting love for the game.
Now he wants to coach the same way.
Lillibridge is a 2002 graduate of Jackson High School who went on to play at the University of Washington and then for 10 professional seasons, including all or parts of six seasons in the major leagues. After retiring in the past offseason, he is transitioning to a life after baseball. Or as he said with a smile, “Civilian life.”
It is, said the 31-year-old Lillibridge, “crazy to think that I’m not going to (play again). And if you’d talked to me three years ago, I never would’ve imagined being done. But the last couple of years the game hasn’t necessarily gone my way.”
Since he made the decision to retire, Lillibridge added, “there hasn’t been a day yet when I’ve said, ‘Oh, man, I wish I was still playing.’”
Lillibridge, who played every infield and outfield position in his pro career, was chosen in the fourth round of the 2005 major league draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates following his junior season at Washington. After two minor league seasons he was traded to Atlanta, and in 2008 he reached the majors for the first time with the Braves.
He was traded to the Chicago White Sox a few months later and played the next three seasons there, while also spending part of two seasons in the minors. But midway through the 2012 season he was traded to the Boston Red Sox and a month later he was traded again, this time to the Cleveland Indians.
Lillibridge split the 2013 season between the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees and their minor league teams, and then spent last season in the minors with the Texas Rangers.
Still determined to play, “I was working out (over the winter), in great shape, ready to go,” he said.
But when no major league teams called with contract offers, “my wife and I talked about it and it was like, ‘Are we OK with staying home? Is it time to start doing something different with our lives?’ And the idea of being home sounded pretty nice,” he said.
As he looks back on his career accomplishments, “it sometimes gives me chills,” Lillibridge admitted. “When I do think about it, I’m very proud of what God blessed me with. To be able to play the game of baseball at the highest level with the best players, and to not only compete but to be able to excel at times … I’m just a little guy who maximized his ability, who became strong mentally, and who made it.”
In the last year, Lillibridge and his wife Stephanie bought a home near Mill Creek where they will live with sons Cohen, who is 3, and Bennett, 7 months. He has also taken up coaching and mentoring, the former as a personal coach who works with young players individually and in groups, and the latter with an organization called Base by Pros (founded by baseball player Mitch Canham of Lake Stevens) that offers instruction and guidance in baseball and life lessons.
Lillibridge, who is finishing his college degree in social science, says he already has “a PhD in baseball.” And he now wants to use that knowledge to help kids find the proper path to success.
“I want to mentor and work with kids, and to be individually invested with them,” he said. “That’s my calling. That’s what I feel I’m led to do. And if a kid is passionate and loves baseball and loves life and wants to be great at something, then I want to help him. Because I know I can instruct them and help them maximize who they are.”
Coaching youngsters “is a lot of work and requires a lot of patience,” he went on, “but it’s also very rewarding. When you speak with passion and if you know what you’re talking about and if you love it, the parents and the kids see it, and then they get excited, too.”
Now that he is finished playing, Lillibridge says he can go back to being a fan again. Particularly of the Seattle Mariners, just as he was as a boy growing up in Mill Creek.
“I always loved the Mariners (back then),” he said. “I watched a lot of games at the Kingdome and at Safeco Field as a kid, and I always loved coming to Seattle and playing at Safeco Field (as a player).”
In his youth, Lillibridge remembers watching Seattle players like Omar Vizquel, Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki, “and it’s crazy, they’re all guys I got to play with (in the majors).”
But the greater love these days, Lillibridge said, is simply the game itself.
“I’m a fan of baseball and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” he said. “And now that it’s not a job, I think I’m going to enjoy it even more. I’m looking forward to being a diehard fan, just like the rest of my family and friends.”