With the Thin White Dukes floundering from 3rd place down to 8th place, due in no small part to the mysterious hand injury which has befallen my 3rd baseman, I decided to pick up someone to cover for my aching Chipper.
Casey Blake. An Iowa baseball legend, right up there with Cal Eldred & Mike Boddicker.
Casey Blake graduated from Indianola the same year that I did, 1992. Growing up, I knew who he was. All of my sporty friends knew who he was.
You see, Iowegians, along with Alaskans, are the only high-schoolers who play their baseball in the summer, meaning that even if there was decent talent, MLB teams wouldn't really bother. The MLB draft is in June & we barely started the season by that time, so why would some team draft an Iowa high-schooler before they had played their senior season? What if he regressed in his senior season? What would happen if the kid got hurt? Or got busted drunkenly running naked through a cornfield? Sometimes, teams would hold try-outs for Iowa players. I remember hearing about a few guys I knew who went to a Braves try-out. All they did was run 10 40's & throw home from center field. No hitting, no fielding, no pitching, nothing. The Braves figured that if you could run & throw, they could teach you how to do the rest. Needless to say, the guys who went were seriously bummed. So, hardly anyone from Iowa got drafted...
Except Casey Blake.
We didn't play Indianola. They're a class up from us & were in the center of the state, but we all knew that Casey Blake got drafted. And not in the 40th round or anything, just some team fishing. He went in the 11th round, where actual college players & stuff went! Wow! To me, you couldn't make movies, or be in a good band, or do anything really other than middle-management for some hog slaughtering outfit in Cedar Rapids. I remember thinking how unbelievable it was, the notion that a kid who shared the same geography that I did could actually have a chance to play big league ball...
Blake didn't sign, instead opting for a full-ride scholarship to Wichita State, which was equally as cool, since the Shockers were a baseball powerhouse at the time. He hit .360 with 22 HRs & 101 RBI his senior year at Wichita State & got re-drafted by Toronto in the 7th round, just behind Chad Moeller & ahead of Mark DeRosa.
By then, other things were going on in my life, so I figured I'd leave Casey Blake to his eminent super stardom & try to find a job with health insurance...
Of course, that's when the fun really begins...
Blake, hero to all similar-aged Iowa high school baseball players, turned into an organizational failure. He struggled his first two years in the minors at Hagerstown in the Sally League & Dunedin in the Florida State League, which is bad news for a college senior draftee, since you only really have until you're 25 tops before the organization deems you "roster fodder" & has you fill holes until they release you.
That's exactly what happened to Casey Blake. He bounced around the minors for 4 years before The Blue Jays finally gave him 39 major-league AB's in 1999 & then put him on waivers. Minnesota claimed him, bounced him from AAA to the majors & back again before putting him on waivers in September of 2001, where he was then claimed by the Orioles. He got 15 more AB's with them before they put him back on waivers, to be claimed by the Twins AGAIN. He was finally released by the Twins after 20 more meaningless AB's in 2002 at age 29.
Blake's major league career numbers up to that date goes like this:
112 AB's; .232 / .309 / .339; 2 HR; 7 RBI; 3 SB.
To be honest, I'd forgotten all about Casey Blake by 2002. Since there was no news of his dominance of the American League up to that point, I'd figured he'd gotten hurt or wanted to be a veterinarian or something. Whatever. I had chicks to ogle at! And besides, there aren't too many chances out there for guys who are about to turn 30 with major league numbers like that...
Thank you, rebuilding year!
The Cleveland Indians, coming down hard after a brilliant stretch from '95 - '01, decided to do what many teams do after the torch has burned out on a great run, shed payroll & throw in the towel for a few years.
Enter Casey Blake, who was given the 3rd base job for the league-minimum salary of $330,000 & led an admittedly bad Indians team in games played, hits, runs, & doubles among other things, with an OPS+ of 95, so just below league-average. Not bad really. And the best thing about 2003 is it put Casey Blake back into my consciousness. By then, I was married to The Wife & living in Chicago & trying to cope with being an adult & here's Casey Blake, still plugging away, making the dream come true.... Wonderful.
Blake kept his job in 2004, when he led the Indians in total bases & hit 28 HR's, tied with Pronk for the team lead. By the end of 2004, the Indians, with Sabathia & Hafner & Martinez already in place, were beginning to resemble the club we're seeing today atop the AL Central, so some thought that guys like Casey Blake might be thanked for taking one for the team & then shown the door. Well, GM Mark Shapiro decided to reward Blake's 2-year league-minimum term with a fresh 2-year deal worth a little over $5 million. Awesome!
Move to today. Blake was just named AL player of the week.
And, more importantly, he's representing the hopes & dreams of every Iowa kid who loves baseball. Or more to the point, every kid who grew up in Iowa playing baseball & never thought a fellow Hawkeye could succeed on the biggest stage.
He was also just named starting 3B for the Thin White Dukes.
(The picture above is of the baseball field in Cascade, IA. I played there & seriously thought I might be able to hit it over that monster in center field....)