By Jamie H. Vaught
While Willie Blair (pictured) wasn’t a highly-recruited high school baseball player from Paintsville, Ky., during the early 1980s, he nevertheless did successfully pitch his way to a 12-year major league career, which concluded in 2001.
Now in his third year as the bullpen coach for the San Diego Padres, Blair, 49, certainly remembers his early days.
“I was a young senior,” he recalled in a recent interview in Pittsburgh where the Padres faced the Pirates. “I was only 17 when I graduated. I was only 160 pounds so I really needed to go to college to grow up.”
So he went to Morehead State University where former NBA and MLB player Steve Hamilton was the head baseball coach. And Hamilton was a well-known 6-7 reliever who also played in two World Series for the New York Yankees.
“Several small schools tried to recruit me and I had a lot of people who expressed interest but nobody really offered me anything,” Blair said of his collegiate choice. “Morehead offered me early and I really liked Steve Hamilton, the coach there at the time. So I committed to Morehead fairly early.”
What about UK? Did then-head coach Keith Madison show any interest?
“Coach Madison showed a little bit of interest at first saying that he was going to try to get down to watch me (at Johnson Central High),” commented Blair, who makes his home in Lexington with his wife Trina and three children during the off-season.
"Unfortunately, his college schedule and my high school schedule didn’t work out that easily. So he wasn’t able to get there in time before Morehead offered me. When coach Hamilton offered me, I went ahead and signed to go to Morehead.”
Madison, who has followed Blair’s career over the years, praised the Paintsville native’s baseball knowledge.
“Willie was an outstanding pitcher and now he’s sharing all he learned in his playing career with young MLB pitchers,” said Madison. “He’s also a man of character. The Padres are fortunate to have him on their coaching staff.”
After a productive career at Morehead, the right-hander was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as an 11th-round selection in the 1986 First-Year Player Draft. During his MLB playing career from 1990 to 2001, Blair had 139 starts for several clubs and posted a 60-86 mark with a 5.04 ERA in 418 games.
In 1997, Blair won a career-high 16 games for the Detroit Tigers, going 16-8 with a 4.17 ERA over 29 games, including 27 starts.
During the interview in the visitors’ dugout at PNC Park, Blair was also asked about the current pitching philosophy which evolved over the years.
In the old days, especially before 1990, it was pretty common to see a starting pitcher throw the entire nine innings if he was pitching well. The teams back then weren’t overly concerned with pitch counts and didn’t have the specialized guys like the setup man in the bullpen. For instance, pitching stars Bert Blyleven and Dwight Gooden had 24 and 16 complete games in 1985, respectively. In 1968, Denny McLain and Juan Marichal had 28 and 30 complete games, respectively.
And now fast forward to 2014. The pitchers with most complete games last year were Houston’s Dallas Keuchel with five in the American League and Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw with six in the National League.
Times certainly have changed and Blair has thoughts about today’s philosophy about limiting the starters to around 100 or 110 pitches.
“I think there’s a good part of that and then I think there are other parts where I think it is overanalyzed,” said Blair, who was the head junior varsity baseball coach at Lexington Christian Academy following his retirement as a player. “I really think it’s about how hard those guys worked during those 100 pitches. I think there’s a time where a guy is real strong one day and when that happens, let him throw 100, 115 or maybe even 120.”
But Blair said the pitchers are throwing more stressful pitches (breaking balls such as curveball and slider) and the bullpen is there to help out.
“People now are so specialized. You have a seventh inning guy, eighth inning guy, ninth inning guy. Those guys are really good out there,” he added. “Many years ago the bullpen guys weren’t as strong as they are now. It all comes down to winning games and you’re going to do what’s best for the team. That’s to win games.”
Blair also pointed out the teams have invested a lot of money with multi-year contracts to pitchers and they understandably want to protect their investments by keeping them healthy over a long period of time.
“There’s so much money in the game now,” he said. “So they (teams) are going to try to limit their pitches and limit the times they go out there when they’re hurting.”
What is the best major league game Blair has ever played?
“Yeah, that’s a tough one,” he smiled. “I had a couple of games where I did particularly well. One was against the White Sox when I pitched a complete game (for the Detroit Tigers). I had a shutout until the ninth inning and then gave up a homer but we ended up winning 3-1 in ’97.
“And then I had a game in ’93 when I threw my first (career) complete game for the (Colorado) Rockies. That was pretty neat. Another game that really stands out is when we were playing in Baltimore in ’97 and at that time they were really good. I took a shutout to the ninth inning there (for the Tigers) and I think we ended up winning in extra innings.”
A very pleasant personality, Blair said he has several favorite or memorable moments in MLB, including serving as the final Opening Day starter in Tiger Stadium history in 1999 along with battery mate (and current Tigers manager) Brad Ausmus when he pitched eight shutout innings in a 1-0 loss.
But his favorite one likely was his very first game in MLB uniform when he played for the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Probably the best one, though, was just being on the opening-day roster,” he remembered. “In 1990, we were playing against Texas at Texas and my childhood hero was Nolan Ryan. He was pitching against us. I mean it was just incredible. I think I was 24 years old and he was in his 24th or 25th season in the big leagues. But just being able to be on that opening-day roster and see him pitch on my first game in the big leagues, that was pretty neat.”
While San Diego is a long journey from his home state of Kentucky, Blair isn’t complaining about his job. After all, he is still coaching a sport that he loves.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.