Blair still glad he and Biagini parted company

John Steadman

February 17, 1993|By John Steadman

Having to play the political game, rather than the game on the field, was enough to make Paul Blair walk away. He left the Orioles' organization in late season of 1990 with no regrets, hard feelings or acrimony. He had seen enough to realize it wasn't worth the travail or turmoil.

"I'm not mad at the Orioles and I hope they aren't mad with me," he said. "But coaching at Rochester under manager Greg Biagini [now Orioles coach] wasn't a pleasant experience. I got to the point I felt he was uncomfortable when I talked to the players. That was my impression.

"I never had any problems. A lot of the kids would rather talk to someone who has been there and played in the big leagues than someone who hasn't. Pure and simple. When you work in the minor leagues as a coach you are subject to men with big egos who may resent your presence. I'd still like to manage, but under more comfortable conditions."

Blair has more than a cursory understanding of the game. He played it with style and effectiveness and is aware of all the nuances. His ability to communicate is a prime asset. So there's not much else to managing except to write the names in the lineup and let them go play. Of course, he first needs an opportunity and would be surprised if it happened.

Endowed with excellent speed and a strong, accurate arm leads to linking Blair with Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays when it comes to measuring retrieving skills as a center fielder. He reacted to bat on ball, got an almost instinctive jump and ran down drives to any part of the park. From a coaching standpoint, some of that can be taught, but not the hitting aspect.

Blair turned a lot of pitcher's mistakes into spectacular outs. In the late innings, with games on the line, manager Earl Weaver would be pacing the dugout, cupping a cigarette in his hand and talking to himself. "Hit it to center field, hit it to center field," he would be pleading -- where he knew it would be caught to put the quietus to a rival rally.

From his own schooling in the Orioles' farm system and then trying to help others, Blair has come to a true assessment of what baseball teaching can do for a prospect.

"You can help a young player in the mental approach to batting, change a few things in a stance and get him to keep his shoulders tucked in, but you can't teach eye-hand coordination, which is the most important part," Blair said. "That's a gift from God."

The most money Blair ever made in a 17-year major-league career (13 with the Orioles) was $108,000, when he was a Yankee, and now the minimum salary is $109,000, which tells him that this indeed is a different financial era. At age 49, he's retired, receives a pension of $36,000 annually and makes appearances at card and memorabilia shows.

As for his most devastating baseball moment? "No, not losing to the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series," he answers. "Most everyone agrees that was the all-time best Oriole team. My lowest point was 1973 when we lost to the Oakland A's in the playoffs. Up to that time, we won nine playoff games in a row. To realize it was all over, with no World Series to go play, meant more shock than you can imagine. An empty feeling, wiped out."

Playing for Weaver amounted to a pleasure trip. The driving, aggressive manner may have been an annoyance to some but not to Blair. He talked of the unity the manager created and how he utilized all members of the roster and made sure utility players got enough work to remain sharp so, when needed, they were ready to contribute."

From spring training to the end of the season, Weaver was intent on every aspect of keeping a team primed mentally and physically. "We emphasized fundamentals in training camp and had a belief in each other that regardless of what came up in a game we were going to be able to handle it," remembers Blair. "That attitude came from Weaver.

"Something as simple as coming out of camp with just enough batting practice. He would never overdo it. I can't remember any player having blisters from too much hitting. Weaver had the right formula. We never beat ourselves. Come August and September, he had 'worked' the umpires to such a point we got all the breaks on close calls. Did we as players realize that?

Absolutely. Weaver had put us in position so a lot of things broke our way."

The Oriole years were a happy ride for Blair. Only fond memories remain. From a personal standpoint, he says he never met two men in any line of endeavor comparable to Brooks Robinson and Dick Hall.

"Their dispositions never changed," Blair recalled. "I don't care what happened, even if management had mistreated them, or if we had a bad bus ride, or a decision went against them. They never let it change their outlook or how they treated others."

Blair, before returning to Baltimore, after concluding his career with the Yankees, remained in New York as a coach at Fordham University. There's no serious money to be made coaching college baseball; scholarships are few and games don't generate ticket sales. But some coaches enhance their incomes with summer baseball camps for children that are immensely profitable, where they earn more than from their regular college coaching jobs.

The managing aspect still appeals to Blair, but he knows the politics that often must be played with general managers and farm directors. He much prefers the freedom of movement, to do his own thinking and not have to appease bosses as the first priority to keeping a job.

Paul Blair is his own man. You can never put a price on that.

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