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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Paul Blair Then and Then, Winning Background

This post covers Paul Blair's playing days. For Blair's post-playing, coaching career, the one that got him into the CMC set, check out his earlier post: Paul Blair, Through Baseball

Paul Blair was a centerfielder known for his defense, winning eight Gold Gloves in his 17-year career. But on July 11, 1970, it was a defensive mistake - he slipped - that led to a Blair game-saving catch, The Toledo Blade wrote.

Al Kaline sent one deep into center. The Tiger Stadium crowd and those watching on television thought Kaline had tied the game. Even Blair thought it was out.

"It really was out and the wind brought it back in," Blair told reporters afterward. "I was going to try to go up over the fence and get it and, luckily my hand slipped and I fell. Then the wind got it and brought it back and I just stuck my hand out and said 'Thank you'."

With Blair's defensive and offensive help, the Orioles would go on to win the World Series that year, the Orioles' and Blair's second championship in five seasons. In a playing career that would be defined by his time with Baltimore, Blair would go on to win two more championship rings while contributing to the late-1970s Yankees.

Blair's career began in 1961, signed not by the Orioles, but by the Mets. It was the team his Orioles would play in the World Series - and lose to - eight years later. Blair's career would continue after his playing days were done, serving as coaches in college and for minor league and independent teams.

Blair made his way to the Baltimore system as the Orioles drafted him away from the Mets for 1963. He first made his way to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in September 1964. He made the Memorial Stadium center field his home the next year. He hit .234 in his first full year in the majors, and .277 his second.

That second year, in 1966, was also the Orioles' and Blair's first championship run. The Orioles beat the Dodgers in a 4-0 sweep. A Dodger defensive error by Blair's centerfield counterpart Willie Davis that let a Blair hit drop and helped lead to the Game 2 win.

The Orioles won Game 3 by a score of 1-0. That one came on a fifth-inning Blair home run.

"That was the best thrill of my life, right there," Blair told The Associated Press after the game.

In 1967, Blair won his first Gold Glove, while hitting .293. In 1969, Blair had his arguably his best year. He won his second Gold Glove, earned his first of two All Star appearances and hit a career-best 26 home runs. His Orioles also returned to the World Series, against the team that first signed him, the Mets.

"I feel we're the best team," Blair told UPI going into that series with the Mets, "and we can't win by just sitting back and saying we're the best. We've got to go out and show them we're the best."

After going 5-6 in the league clincher against the Twins, Blair went just 2-20 in the series as the Orioles lost 4 games to 1.

One of those hits did come in a key spot, breaking up a Jerry Koosman no-hitter in the seventh inning of Game 2. A stolen base and another single and Blair tied the game at one. But the Orioles went on to lose 2-1.

The next May, as the Orioles were on their way to winning that second championship, Blair went up to bat against the Angels' Ken Tatum. Tatum hit Blair in the face with a pitch, breaking his cheek bone.

He lost nearly a month. Upon his return, he found himself in a slump. He also found himself backing off the plate, something he tried to correct. But the injury would have lasting effects, especially against right handers.

The Orioles returned to the World Series that year, this time defeating the Reds. This time, Blair went 9 for 19.

"This is something we've been working for since we lost to the Mets," Blair told The AP afterward. "Now we don't have to answer all those questions about what happened."

Blair continued his fielding heroics, winning Gold Gloves each year from 1969 to 1975. He hit .262 in 1971, .280 in 1973 and .261 in 1974.

In June 1973, he saved a game with both his glove and his bat, The AP wrote, making a running catch in the top of the inning, then a bases-clearing triple in the bottom.

His final two years in Baltimore in 1975 and 1976, however, he hit .218, then .197. For 1977, Blair signed with the Yankees. By that time, he was mainly used as a late-inning replacement. In September, he started again. He also hit a home run that proved the difference, The AP wrote.

That October, Blair was again a late-inning replacement. This time, it was for Reggie Jackson. Blair hit the game-winning hit in the 12th inning. The AP noted his prior injury against a right-hander. The game-winning hit came off right-handed Rick Rhoden.

It was also his one hit in four at-bats in a series the Yankees would win. Blair would get his fourth ring with the Yankees in 1978, going 3 for 8.

His career nearing its end, Blair signed with the Reds in 1979. It finally ended with 12 more appearances back with the Yankees in 1980.

In early 1979, Blair thought he might have played his last game. He was waiting for an interested team, and a contender. That team was the Reds. He played 75 games for Cincinnati that year, the last significant playing time of his career.

"Paul Blair comes from a winning background," Reds Manager John McNamara told The AP that May, "and he can play, he can definitely play."

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