Major meeting for old buddies from Kitsap
Seattle Times staff reporter
PHOENIX — In the visiting clubhouse of the San Francisco Giants, where the presence of Barry Bonds is a living, breathing force (even in absentia), Jason Ellison defines anonymity.
Ellison plays sparingly, mainly when Bonds' aching body needs a break late in games or the Giants need a functioning defensive player in left field to help keep the game close. He was the last player on an opening-day roster to get a start, and he has just 39 at-bats all year while playing in 53 games.
"It's great to be up here, but it's definitely tough with the lack of playing time," Ellison said wistfully before a recent game against the Diamondbacks, killing time watching an Adam Sandler movie.
But Friday at Safeco Field, when the Giants come to town for an interleague series, Ellison's presence will be far more meaningful than that of Bonds to those from the small Kitsap Peninsula community of Port Orchard.
The game will be a milestone — the first major-league matchup of Ellison and the Mariners' Willie Bloomquist. Together, they led South Kitsap High School to the heights of prep glory in 1996 — a 23-0 record, the Class AAA state title and a No. 15 national ranking.
It is remarkable enough that a town of fewer than 8,000 produced two major-league ballplayers off one high-school team.
But for Ellison and Bloomquist, both 28 years old and family men now, it is much more than that. It is the validation of their childhood dreams, sure, but also the poignant reunion of two people who were thrust together by circumstance during their formative years into an alliance that elevated both.
"Obviously, if we were to predict clear back in high school we'd both be where we are now, people would have probably called us crazy," Bloomquist said during the Mariners' last homestand. "But I think there's something inside both of us. We were always kind of against the odds."
Bloomquist came from a large, tight-knit family. They lived on a 42-acre farm-like property on which their dad, a formidable local dentist named Bill Bloomquist, had built a batting cage and a baseball field.
Ellison came from a broken home — his mother arrested and jailed on drug charges in 1987, when Jason was 9, according to a 2003 article in the Fresno Bee. In high school, his parents divorced, and most of the Ellison family moved out of state, leaving Jason to stay with friends in an apartment.
It was an unsatisfactory arrangement, and Willie Bloomquist decided to do something about it. Ellison had been a baseball rival in junior high, but now they were teammates at South Kitsap and growing friends.
Willie was recruiting Jason for his select team, and he came up with a bold plan: He asked his parents if Jason could move in with them. They embraced the idea.
"It just didn't seem like it was working out too well with him," Bloomquist recalled. "All my brothers and sisters were out of the nest and off to college. Jason and I got along really well at the time.
"I said, 'Shoot, we have an empty house, you can come stay with us if you want.' I talked to my folks. They always liked Jason. I had always played against him. They knew he was a good kid. We brought him in."
It was a great match. Bill Bloomquist was known for his "tough love," and he treated Jason with the same approach.
Living with Bill and Dayna Bloomquist helped tame Jason, who always teetered on the borderline of eligibility at school.
"Jason was kind of on the bubble all the time," said Elton Goodwin, longtime baseball coach at South Kitsap, now retired. "He didn't have a great bringing up. The Bloomquists got close to him, and thank God they did that. I'm not sure he would have survived. That was a great bond."
Bloomquist and Goodwin are quick to point out that Ellison wasn't a troublemaker, or a reprobate. Far from it.
Goodwin called him "a great kid." Ellison was extremely likeable, Bloomquist said, adored by all the students at South Kitsap, no matter what clique or social class they fell into. And on the baseball field, both of them were driven to succeed, with visions of a much higher calling.
The unorthodox living arrangement, Bloomquist said, "turned out, really, to be a blessing for both of us. I was more of a ... tight ass, and he was more of a rebel. We kind of balanced each other out a little. He loosened me up a little, and I kind of brought him the other way."
That assessment was seconded with a smile by Ellison.
"We evened each other pretty well," he said. "It all builds character. We worked out pretty well. The Bloomquists were great to me. They couldn't have been better — awesome."
Said Goodwin: "Doc Bloomquist was a tough [guy]. Now Jason had a curfew, a family structure. Dayna is a wonderful woman. I really believe to this day [them] being there saved his life."
It wasn't all Ozzie and Harriet, however. In their senior year at South Kitsap, Willie was lined up with a baseball scholarship to Arizona State and Ellison to Washington State. But Ellison flunked math in the final semester, and when he declined to go to summer school to make it up, his WSU scholarship disappeared.
That led to what has been termed "a falling out" between the Bloomquists and Jason. But Willie said that characterization is too strong.
"My parents loved him just like one of their own," he said. "They were more disappointed, because they knew his potential. All he had to do was keep up his GPA and he had a scholarship to WSU, and he didn't do it.
"My parents, I think, took a little bit of that responsibility upon themselves because they were kind of acting like guardians. It would have been just the same way if I didn't get it done. They would have been disappointed in me. My parents still love him to death to this day."
Ellison takes a positive slant to the turn of events. Instead of Washington State, he ended up at Bellevue Community College, where he met his future wife, Raelena. They have a 5-month-old daughter, Ariana, and have a permanent home in Issaquah — near a house owned by Willie and his wife, Lisa, who have their own young daughter, Natalie, 17 months.
A superb pitcher at South Kitsap, where he compiled a 20-0 record, Ellison began dabbling in the outfield at Bellevue. Undrafted at the junior-college level, as he had been out of high school, he transferred to Lewis-Clark State. Legendary coach Ed Cheff made him a full-time outfielder and watched Ellison lead L-C State to two NAIA titles, once as World Series MVP.
"Who knows?" mused Ellison. "If I ended up going to Washington State, maybe I never would have got a chance to play the outfield. It all worked out."
Ellison finally got drafted, in the 22nd round in 2000. And, just as Bloomquist was doing in a parallel universe with Seattle, Ellison impressed Giants personnel as much with his hustle, savvy and determination as with his tools.
Bloomquist, a third-round pick in 1999, was called up to the majors late in 2002, hit .455 in a 12-game showcase, and has been up to stay ever since, carving a niche as a utility man.
Ellison made his major-league debut in May 2003, but was on the yo-yo to Fresno until last year, when an injury to Bonds gave Ellison extended playing time. In 131 games, he hit .264 with four homers, 24 runs batted in and 14 stolen bases.
Now with Bonds back, Ellison is again an afterthought for manager Felipe Alou.
"He just needs a chance," said Bloomquist, adding with a smile, "I know how that goes. He's a guy that, if you doubt him, he's going to prove you wrong. Just give him a chance. He hasn't had the easiest path to get up here. I think it's just awesome what he's done."
There is a bittersweet sidelight to this story. In October 2002, shortly after Bloomquist made it to the major leagues, Bill Bloomquist broke two neck vertebrae in a car accident while on a hunting trip in Wyoming.
Airlifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City, he seemed on the way to recovery after surgery but suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. Seemingly near death, he miraculously came out of the coma a few days later, but recovery has been a slow and difficult road.
Still, this is a day to celebrate in Port Orchard. "It's huge," in Goodwin's words.
"It will be a pretty cool experience," Ellison said. "I've definitely been looking forward to going up there to play, and playing against Willie."
"We've played each other in spring training, but obviously the regular season has a little different feel," Bloomquist said. "It's going to be fun, just based on our relationship growing up. Who would have thought we'd ever be in the same big-league game together? It will be pretty neat."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company