CLEARWATER, Fla. — We were in the middle of a postgame pow-wow with Joe Blanton(notes) on Sunday afternoon when one reporter in his 40s or 50s decided the time was right to share a nickname a reader had suggested to him for the starting rotation of the Philadelphia Phillies.
"What do you think about Joe Blanton and the Terror Squad?" asked the writer.
The most famous fifth starter in baseball — who had just pitched three scoreless innings against the Yankees — smiled and responded with a question himself.
"What, group all of them into one and leave me by myself?" asked Blanton.
If he knew the genesis of the moniker, Blanton didn't let on. I breathed a mental sigh of relief that the reporter had come up with — intentionally or not — a more euphemistically-sounding tag. We had dodged the proverbial bullet.
"Isn't that a reference to a rap group?" asked another reporter in a tone that suggested he knew the answer but instantly remembered it probably wasn't nice to say out loud and now that he was already asking it, it would probably be better to defer to someone else's reputation for the explanation.
That "someone else" happened to be yours truly and another writer as all eyes drifted toward our spot in the circle. But if we were expected to break the news to Blanton that the nickname was a nod to the rapper Fat Joe and his "Terror Squad," we weren't going to do the deed.
After all, it's one thing to laugh at the cleverness of the name when you see it on Twitter. But it's quite another to directly imply that man is fat when you're standing three feet away from him. And, really, Blanton is not fat in the American obesity epidemic definition of the term; his body just doesn't match our image of the prototypical ballplayer.
He certainly isn't in the same neighborhood — hell, same zip code — as Fat Joe.
So I just shrugged and pretended I didn't know Remy Ma from Jerry Remy. The other writer quickly deferred as well and we moved onto another question. Still, it was awkward.
Then again, there isn't much that isn't awkward about Blanton's situation these days. As part of the vaunted Phillies rotation, he's a step below the talent levels of Roy Halladay(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Cole Hamels(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes). But he's being included in all of their promotional spots — the introductory press conference, the Sports Illustrated photo shoots — because that's part of being on a baseball team and being part of a rotation.
His inclusion, though, has come with jokes and remarks that might sting someone who's not as comfortable with himself as Blanton. He handles all the questions — even the ones containing a weird subtext that he isn't good enough to share a sentence with the other four — with good humor and grace.
And he should be acting that way, because Blanton doesn't have anything to be ashamed about. He's not a tomato can the Phillies dragged in from Double-A to fill out the schedule, but a pitcher with a lot of major league innings behind him and a lot of innings still to go. He's had good years and bad years, won a World Series title in 2008 and would be welcomed into the top half of many team's rotations. His track record and potential to pitch 200 innings for the Phillies this season should excuse him from being a victim of collateral damage in the media's rush to create this Four Aces story.
But Blanton being coveted by pitching-deficient teams makes for his other awkward angle. There has been continued speculation that the right-hander could be traded for prospects and as a way to shed his not-inconsiderable salary of $8.5 million for each of the next two seasons. He'd go from being labeled as someone along for the ride to a rotation reinforcement. All those SI photos would be rendered completely useless.
But Blanton insists the talk doesn't bother him — he went through it in Oakland already — even if his current family situation wouldn't make a trade more difficult this time around. (With the birth of a newborn at the end of January, Blanton and his wife now have two daughters under the age of 2. Moving would not be easy.)
"I love it here," Blanton said. "I'm here and I'm going to be here hopefully as long as I can be. I'm not looking over my shoulder. In my mind, I'm here and I'm not going anywhere."