Return to the bigs

Blaise Ilsley is back in the major leagues.

Nearly 10 years after his brief time as a big-league player, Ilsley, an Alpena native, will serve as bullpen coach this season for the Saint Louis Cardinals after he was promoted in November. He has spent the last 12 years as a minor league coach in the Cardinals organization.

“Obviously I’m very excited and grateful for the opportunity,” Ilsley said. “The Cardinals should be in contention, no question. It’s always a crap shoot, but we have a good core coming back,” Ilsley said.

Ilsley is the Cardinals’ fourth bullpen coach in four seasons and will try to bring some stability to the position under second-year manager Mike Matheny. He’ll serve as the main communicator in the bullpen, making sure relievers are prepared when called into a game. He’ll also do video review of opposing teams and throw batting practice.

Ilsley previously spent the last five seasons as the pitching coach of the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds. In three of his five seasons, the Redbirds led the Pacific Coast League in earned run average.

While his own major league career was cut short by injuries, Ilsley has dedicated himself to teaching others and has served as pitching coach for seven different teams during his coaching career. It’s a niche that Ilsley’s found to be very rewarding.

“The relationship with the guys and trying to help them with their skills (is what I enjoy the most),” Ilsley said. “You make relationships with them that last a long time.”

It’s been a long journey for Ilsley, a former hockey and baseball standout at Alpena High School. He was drafted by the Houston Astros out of Indiana State University in 1985 and spent 13 years with six organizations including the Cardinals. He made his major league debut in 1994 with the Chicago Cubs, making 10 appearances. He also played winter ball in several countries before his career ended after he had a second shoulder operation in 1998.

It was then that he gave some serious thought to coaching.

“Pretty much when I couldn’t play anymore (I thought about it),” Ilsley said. “It’s something I always thought about as a player, but you don’t really think (seriously) about it until your career is over.”

Ilsley didn’t have to wait long to break into coaching. In 1999, he became the pitching coach for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, a professional team in Canada. He followed up with a stint as pitching coach of the Sioux Falls Canaries in 2000, before working his way through the lower levels of Major League Baseball.

In 2001 Ilsley served as pitching coach of the Bluefield Orioles, a rookie-ball affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, before joining the Cardinals, where he has remained since 2002. He served as pitching coach for several of the Cardinals’ Double A clubs including the New Haven Ravens (2002), Tennessee Smokies (2003-2004) and Springfield Cardinals (2005-2007) and then joined the Redbirds in 2008.

Ilsley was all set to return the Redbirds this season, but after the Cardinals relieved Dyer Miller, Matheny and General Manager John Mozeliak phoned Ilsley and offered him the position without an interview, because both sides were familiar with one another. It’s an opportunity that Ilsley hopes to make the most of.

“Being a bullpen coach at the major league level is a good spot for me right now,” Ilsley said. “I’ll keep running from year to year, make the best of it and hope it goes well.”