Artist's work in progress

Coppin: As a coach guiding the rejuvenation of a struggling program, former Oriole Paul Blair accepts the growing pains as long as he can teach the value in learning, not just winning, the game.

College Baseball

May 11, 2001|By Colby Ware | Colby Ware,SUN STAFF

For former Oriole and world champion Paul Blair, coaching the Coppin State baseball team isn't so much about winning or losing, but about how to play the game.

"The challenge here is teaching the game and still competing at the Division I level," he said. "It can be difficult keeping up."

It has been a big challenge.

Blair took over a 13-man squad in 1998 and lost 42 of 43 games after returning eight players from the previous year's team, which had a record of 16-24 under coach Jason Booker. In 1999, the team improved slightly to 5-33 and last season finished 6-29.

"We came in and started from the ground floor," said Blair, "but we are getting more athletes every year and we will continue to improve."

This season the Eagles (8-31) endured an 0-19 start, then improved to win six of their last 12 but closed the season by losing a doubleheader to Howard. In yesterday's opening round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament in Ormond Beach, Fla., Coppin State lost, 8-4, to North Carolina A&T. The Eagles face Norfolk State today.

The season's highlight was a 3-2 upset of Delaware State, the Hornets' first conference loss.

Unlike many of his players and three assistant coaches, Blair, 57, began playing baseball as early as age 8. He was signed to a minor-league contract straight out of high school and went on to play center field for the 1966 and 1970 world champion Orioles. Baseball became a major part of his life.

"For most of the kids today," said Blair, "especially inner-city black kids, they are not growing up with the game and Major League Baseball doesn't seem to care. Most of our good black athletes are playing basketball and football. If you look around, there are no fields in the city."

In Baltimore, there are far more places to play basketball than baseball. Leon Howard, Youth Development Coordinator for the Department of Parks and Recreation, estimates there are about 350 basketball courts to 100 baseball diamonds. But the Eagles are also at a loss for playing space on campus, which forces them to host visiting opponents at Joe Cannon Stadium in Harmans, about a 45-minute drive away.

With no home field, much-needed practice time is limited. The Eagles practice in the school's gymnasium and at nearby softball fields.

This season, the Eagles have committed more than 90 errors, from dropped fly balls to missed routine plays. "This is a team sport. Everybody has to be coordinated, working together as a unit, but we're getting there," said Blair.

"Of the three [baseball, basketball and football], I think baseball is without a doubt the most difficult," said Blair. Speaking of batting, he asked, "Where else can you fail seven of 10 times and still be considered one of the best in the game?

"The game has so many variations, the only way to learn it is to experience it."

Blair and the university have organized fund-raisers to renovate a baseball diamond much closer to campus, just off North Avenue at Whitmore Avenue.

Except for this year's lone senior, Roberto Sanchez, the entire roster is expected to return next year. With the addition of Pace University transfer Tito Miranda, a pitcher who throws in the 90s, Blair appears optimistic.

Despite the poor record, recruiting has been the easiest part of his job, according to Blair. He said that incoming freshmen Ronald Quick from Suitland and Luke Shuttlesworth of Olympia, Wash., will add power and speed. All 16 returning players, including four juniors, were brought in under Blair.

"I already knew of Coach's success in the Major Leagues, but during a visit he explained his goals and assured me this team was on the rise," said junior Pedro Zayas of New York. "Just like Coach, many of us were All-City in high school and not used to losing. We just have to believe in ourselves and deal with it."

After 17 seasons in the major leagues, 13 with the Orioles, Blair retired in 1980 and briefly coached Fordham University to a 14-19 record in 1983. In 1988, Blair moved back to Baltimore after coaching stints in the Yankees, Orioles and Reds farm systems.

No longer aspiring to manage a major-league team, Blair said he is content at Coppin "as long as the kids are learning, improving, and enjoying the program."

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