The Twins and the Orioles were playing the first-ever game in an American League Championship Series on Oct. 4, 1969, in Baltimore. The teams were tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th, with two outs, Mark Belanger at third and Paul Blair at the plate.
Billy Hunter, the Orioles third base coach, said quietly to Belanger, “Be alive, Paul’s liable to lay it down.”
Blair took a ball and followed with a big swing off Twins reliever Ron Perranoski. That was a deke, as Blair then dropped a soft bunt 30 feet down the third base line, there was no play to be had, and Belanger came home with the winning run.
The Orioles swept the Twins in three games, and did so again in 1970.
Blair is the comparable that I’ve offered when conversation has turned to the fielding ability of Byron Buxton.
I’ve seen attempts to attach less-than-dazzling “zone ratings” to center fielding wonders such as Blair and Willie Mays, which is absurd, since TV coverage was limited and only a small sample of film exists on their exploits.
The Blair comparison with Buxton also comes to mind because of down times as a hitter. Trouble is, Buxton’s down times have become the norm. He’s now at 1,062 plate appearances and isn’t close to modifying that long swing for big-league competence.
Blair batted 211 with a .277 on-base as a 24-year-old in 1968 (Buxton’s age), then came back with 26 home runs, 76 RBI, and a .285 average and .327 on-base in 1969. He was hit in the face by a pitch from the Angels’ Ken Tatum in 1970 and that made him less of a hitter.
He tumbled to .197 with the O’s in 1976 and spent several years as a late-inning outfielder for the Yankees. From 1967 to 1975, ages 23 to 31, Blair won eight Gold Gloves with the Orioles, and batted .259 and averaged 42 extra-base hits.
Buxton was effective at the plate over the last two months of 2017 as a 23-year-old, and a Blair-type career seemed a reasonable expectation. Now, with Buxton’s return to ineptitude and inability to make contact … well, the only option might be perfecting the soft, 30-foot bunt.
Read Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick. E-mail him at email@example.com.
• Danica Patrick will win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, return to open wheel in a shared ride, and Indy Car racing will become more popular than NASCAR.
• Paul Fenton’s “tweak” will involve the Wild trading Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. No market for Charlie Coyle.
• And a proposal for the Timberwolves in the summer league: two rebounders and eight other guys combining to unload 50 threes per game. Anyone making 45 percent gets a contract.