Blanton’s exploits thrilled parents, confidants

PHILADELPHIA – The father, Big Joe Blanton, always knew his son wasn’t going to make it.

As a farmer, that is.

“He was a complaining farmer,” Big Joe said. “He never liked any job. He always said I gave him the hardest jobs. Feeding the cows, working the tobacco, working the hay, he didn’t like any of it.”

But when they drove to Citizens Bank Park on Sunday afternoon, just the two of them, Big Joe, who had come up from the family farm in Kentucky, and Not-So-Little Joe, the father had no doubts that his son would handle the task at hand: pitching the Philadelphia Phillies to within a game of winning just their second World Series in the 125-year history of the franchise.

“He was really relaxed,” Big Joe said while standing in a hallway outside the Phillies’ family room, with a group that included Blanton’s wife, LeeAndra, his mother, Carolyn, little sister Kara, high school coach Greg Shelton and agent Jeff Barry.

“I said, ‘How do you feel?’ and he said, ‘I feel great.’ He was ready to go. It seems like when the big games come, he pretty much steps up,” said the beaming father.

But no one, certainly not Big Joe, imagined that in the course of taming the Tampa Bay Rays 10-2 in Game 4 of the World Series, Joe Blanton would also become the first pitcher in 34 years to hit a World Series home run, lining a pitch from reliever Edwin Jackson over the left-field fence in the fifth inning.

“I just got a text a few minutes ago,” said Rich Sparks, the scout who signed Blanton for the Oakland Athletics out of the University of Kentucky. “It was from the coach at LSU, and it said, ‘Did you know he could do that?’ I said to myself, ‘Wow, he took a frigging hack at that one.”

Sparks had followed Blanton since high school. “Back then,” he said, “it took a ball-peen hammer to get him to say anything more than yes sir and no sir. He was very quiet. But he had great stuff in high school.”

Blanton was in his senior year in high school in Franklin, Ky., the last time he hit a home run. In the 10 seasons since, he hardly batted. They used a DH at UK and all the way through the Athletics minor league system. Until he was traded to the Phillies in July, the only time he ever held a bat in his hands was in interleague play.

In 26 big-league at-bats, he had two hits – a bunt single in 2005 against Livan Hernandez of the Washington Nationals and a ground-ball single off Johan Santana of the New York Mets in his first start as a Phillie, on July 22. In five previous postseason at-bats this October before Sunday night, he’d whiffed all five times.

He struck out again in his first at-bat Sunday, then fouled out to first baseman Carlos Pena.

His third at-bat?

“I just close my eyes and swing hard in case I might contact,” he said after the home run, only the 15th homer hit by a pitcher in a World Series, the first since Oakland’s Ken Holtzman went deep in 1974.

Blanton was an “itty-bitty toddler when this man took him in the backyard and began to play ball with him,” Carolyn Blanton said, patting her husband’s chest. “I used to say to him, ‘Do you think you’re being a little hard on him? He’s only 4. He said, ‘If he’s going to do this, he’s going to learn to do this right.’ ”

Big Joe Blanton was in the stands, of course, to see his son win, and to hit his home run.

“I was a nervous wreck,” he said. “I couldn’t sit with my wife. I sat with his agent, and we talked baseball. That distracted me. But I was up cheering a lot.”

For the first half of this summer, there wasn’t much to cheer about for Joe Blanton. By the All-Star break, he’d lost 12 games, the most in the American League, and his ERA was just under 5.00. His name was constantly raised in trade rumors.

“His toughest season,” his wife, LeeAndra, said. “When [the trade] happened, we loved the A’s, I’m from the Bay Area, but when it happened, it was almost like a sigh of relief.”

Their season had begun together in March in Japan, where Blanton pitched Oakland’s opener against the Boston Red Sox.

“I never imagined a season could be this long,” LeeAndra said. “It’s a never-ending season. Now that he’s here. He’s undefeated. This is his best season now.”

Blanton, who won a career-best 16 games in 2006 and never missed a start in four seasons with Oakland while averaging 200 innings a season, did not lose a decision in 13 starts after coming to the Phillies, winning four games. Having regained mastery of his slider to go along with a mid-90s fastball, Blanton has two wins without a loss in the postseason.

And now he has a World Series home run, too.

“It can happen,” said Matt Keough, the former big-league pitcher who scouted for the Athletics and helped talk GM Billy Beane out of trading Blanton once before, when Toronto was after him. “On a dream night, it can happen.”

One of Keough’s best friends in baseball is Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay manager. They worked together for the Angels. But Keough insisted his friend’s suspicions were misplaced when he asked plate umpire Tom Hallion about a dark smudge on Blanton’s cap. The implication was that Blanton, who struck out three of the first five Rays’ batters he faced, might have been doctoring the ball, the same accusation leveled at Detroit’s Kenny Rogers in the 2006 World Series.

“I did bring it to their attention,” Maddon said. “Quite frankly I did. I asked them to watch it and be vigilant about it, and nothing happened, obviously, but I was concerned about that early on.”

Not guilty, Keough said.

“He rubs his hands in both dirt and pine tar, and it gets on his cap,” he said. “Joe Blanton’s the kind of guy, I don’t know if he could throw a spitter even if I taught him.”

Blanton is the kind of pitcher, Keough says, who can give the Phillies 200 innings a year for the next five seasons. Up to now he’s never even complained of a hangnail. His success belongs to him, he said, although they did have it out once in Triple-A, when Blanton had picked up bad habits from what Keough described as a few embittered ex-big leaguers. They talked in an empty clubhouse one night, after a game in which Blanton had shown up his teammates, shown up the umpire, then torn up the clubhouse bathroom.

“For 15 minutes, we talked,” Keough said. “It was mostly a one-way conversation. I told him he was a big leaguer, but he wasn’t acting like a big leaguer, showing up people, and he didn’t look like a big leaguer, with his uniform shirt hanging out, looking sloppy.

“He’s so strong, he could have wrapped his hands around my neck and broken it in five seconds. But he never wavered, he never looked away, he looked me in the eye the whole time, and the next time out, he was a different guy.

“He’s still absolutely fearless, but now when you see him pitch, he’s stoic. You can’t tell if he’s mad or happy.”

Well, you might have detected a smile crease on Blanton’s face as he circled the bases Sunday night, then left the mound to a roaring ovation.

“Where do you start – I can’t even begin,” Carolyn Blanton said. “This is just his dream fulfilled.”

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gordon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 27, 2008