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Featured T.R.'s Memoirs

Boys of Arlington: The rise and fall of Hank Blalock

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at Hank Blalock, who at one time seemed to have it all going for him before it ended far quicker than anybody expected.

 

Alex Rodriguez took a private jet to the 2003 All-Star Game in Chicago. Hank Blalock and his wife, Misty, took a commercial flight.

They had to get up at 4 a.m. to make their flight and get to Comiskey Park for the Monday workout. Not that he had to rush to get there considering he hadn’t been selected to participate in the Home Run Derby.

“I don’t hit many home runs,” Blalock said.

Rodriguez was the Rangers’ marquee player, but he still had a little trouble at the Comiskey players’ entrance. Apparently, he didn’t have his identification and was annoyed that the security guard didn’t recognize the highest-paid athlete in America. They had a bit of a tussle before it all got worked out.

Blalock was just happy to be there as a backup third baseman on the American League team. Veteran third baseman Troy Glaus of the Angels was the starter, and Blalock wasn’t even sure he’d get into the game.

“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” Blalock said, knowing that the game’s situation might dictate AL manager Mike Scioscia’s moves.

You see, the mantra for the 2003 All-Star Game was: “This Time It Counts.”

The previous year’s All-Star Game had ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings because both teams ran out of pitching. That game had been played in Milwaukee, hometown of commissioner Bud Selig, and he was embarrassed and irate about the outcome. Baseball wanted to make the All-Star Game more competitive and not just an exhibition.

“You want an exhibition?” Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. “Go to spring training.”

So, 2003 was the first year that the winner of the All-Star Game determined the home-field advantage for the World Series. Not that Rangers had to worry about that. They went into the All-Star Game with a record of 37-55 and were 20 games out of first place. They were headed for their fourth straight last-place finish.

Despite all that, hope was starting to emerge from the “dark years,” one of the dreariest periods in Rangers history. The Brat Pack was about ready to take over Arlington, and Blalock was at the front, getting selected to the All-Star Game in his first full season in the majors.

He was 22 on that night in Chicago, the second youngest player selected for the game, and for seven innings, he sat quietly on the bench as the National League forged a 6-4 lead. In the bottom of the eighth, Eric Gagne came in to pitch. The right-hander was on his way to winning the Cy Young that season for the Dodgers.

Garret Anderson got a rally started with a double, making him 3 for 4 with a two-run home run in the game. Carl Everett followed with a grounder to first, moving Anderson to third.

Everett was technically the Rangers’ third All-Star representative. He played with the Rangers for the first three months before being traded to the White Sox on July 1. But, like Blalock, he was selected to the AL team as a reserve.

Vernon Wells kept the rally going with a double, scoring Anderson and bringing up Glaus. That’s when Scioscia sent up Blalock to pinch hit. Blalock said he went up there looking for a game-tying single, but his thinking changed after working the count to 3-1.

“You know me, I’m an aggressive hitter,” Blalock said. “I was looking for a fastball.”

On the AL bench, Everett was sitting next to Tigers outfielder Dmitri Young.

“You can’t throw this guy a fastball,” Everett said. “If he does, it’s over.”

Said Gagne later, “I didn’t want to throw any changeups. It’s the All-Star Game, and you want to challenge people.”

Gagne threw a fastball, and it was a mistake. Blalock crushed it into the right-field seats for a two-run homer that gave the American League a 7-6 victory. Baseball had a great All-Star Game that erased the smell of the previous year.

“To go up there against one of the best closers in the game and do that, I still can’t believe I did that,” Blalock said. “I felt like I was running on air. I couldn’t feel my legs under me.”

The only disappointment was Blalock was not selected as the MVP. That went to Anderson because he played the whole game and had three hits.

Rangers vice president John Blake was livid, Blalock less so.

“I thought when I hit the home run, I might be MVP,” Blalock said. “But the guy who played the whole game and also drove in some runs was probably more deserving than a guy coming off the bench.”

The first-place Yankees, going for their sixth World Series appearance in eight years, had an idea for a more fitting gratuity for the guy who gave the AL home-field advantage in the World Series.

“I’m sure if we’re in the World Series and we win the seventh game, we’ll send him a 12-pack of something,” first baseman Jason Giambi said.

(Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Blalock would appreciate that. Maybe a little too much after a game. Maybe he got carried away with the idea of pulling the ball out of the ballpark. Maybe a big contract and security early in his career had a negative impact. Injuries were clearly a significant factor, but Blalock was never a deep thinker when it came to his game.

But what is also clear is there was a time when Blalock was one of the brightest young players in the game and hugely popular in Arlington. That it ended far quicker than expected remains mystifying to this day.

No. 3 prospect

Hank Blalock first came to big-league camp in 2002 in Port Charlotte, Fla. He had just become engaged in the offseason and was still reeling from the thought of paying $600 for a wedding cake.

“You know, I could make a cake for $20,” Blalock said.

He was Tom Sawyer if the Mark Twain character had grown up on the sandlots and beaches of San Diego, a kid with a multi-colored dragon tattoo on his left shoulder and as comfortable with a skateboard as he was with a baseball bat.  He was less than three years removed from San Diego, where he played at Rancho Bernardo High School. His coach was his uncle Sam Blalock, a legend in West Coast high school baseball who retired with 946 wins, second most all-time in California. Blalock was a high school All-American.

The Rangers took him as a shortstop in the third round of the 1999 draft. Scouting director Chuck McMichaels went to see him play, only to watch Blalock take a bad-hop grounder off his eye in infield practice. There was considerable blood, and McMichael thought his trip was wasted.

“But he just stood there and made a motion as if to say, ‘Hit me another one,'” McMichael said. “It was amazing.”

Blalock was an immediate star in the Rangers’ system, an all-world prospect. He split time in 2001 between Class A Port Charlotte and Double A Tulsa, hitting .352 with 18 home runs and 108 RBIs. He hit for the cycle twice in the span of three games.

He was in the Futures Game and was the Rangers Minor League Player of the Year. He played in 33 games in the Arizona Fall League and hit .344 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs. Baseball America had him as the No. 3 prospect in the game.

Blalock was supposed to start the 2002 season at Triple A Oklahoma. Mike Lamb was the Rangers’ third baseman, a left-handed hitter with a .306 batting average but not much power or significant defensive skills. The word was the job was Lamb’s to lose.

He lost it. On Opening Day, Blalock, hitting .372 in spring training, was the Rangers starting third baseman.

“It was a unified decision among the staff,” Rangers general manager John Hart said. “He is not overwhelmed or awed. It’s very exciting that a youngster who was thought so highly of has come in and done the job.”

Blalock hung around for all of 32 games before being sent to Oklahoma City hitting .200 with one home run and six RBIs. Turns out he wasn’t quite ready, and he didn’t return until Sept. 9.

Worst year of all

The 2002 season was the worst season in Rangers history. That ballclub went 72-90 with the craziest cast of characters ever assembled on one roster, including John Rocker, Hideki Irabu, Chan Ho Park, the list goes on … .

Hart knew it would take two or three years minimum to rebuild the Rangers’ pitching staff. But he desperately spent the season trying to find as many spare parts as possible to keep the ballclub semi-competitive for beleaguered manager Jerry Narron and Rodriguez, their impatient superstar.

The funny thing was that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram built its annual preseason baseball preview section around the possibility that the Rangers had four future Hall of Famers on that team: Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez.

That wasn’t quite as prescient as it seemed at the time. But things often weren’t quite what they seemed.

The Rangers were in Baltimore in September, and owner Tom Hicks selected six players to go to the White House and visit with President Bush: A-Rod and Pudge, Kenny Rogers and Rafael Palmeiro and Michael Young. Also selected was outfielder Kevin Mench, who was having a terrific rookie season.

Unbeknownst to Hicks, though, was Mench was benched by Narron for the first two games of the series against the Orioles for flying to Baltimore without permission on a private plane instead of the team charter. Mench didn’t play against the Orioles, but he did meet the president.

That was also the year Narron stuck with Young as his starting second baseman even though there was strong sentiment in the front office to go with Frank Catalanotto, who was perceived to be the better offensive threat. Narron was the one who proved prescient in that case.

Through it all, the Rangers were putting together a talented group of young offensive players who had a chance to be something special in the years to come. Blalock, Young and Mench were among them along with Mark Teixeira, Travis Hafner, Laynce Nix, Gerald Laird, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Ludwick and more.

Along came Showalter

Narron took the fall for the Rangers’ bumbling season. He was dismissed at the end of the year and replaced by Buck Showalter, who had built world championship teams with the Yankees and Diamondbacks. The problem was he had left both organizations the year before both teams won it all.

Showalter saw what he had in Texas, excellent young offensive talent and a desperate need for pitching. In that first spring training in 2003, there was some talk of Blalock moving to second, Young going to the outfield and Teixeira starting at third. People forget that Teixeira was drafted as a third baseman out of Georgia Tech.

But Showalter made the right decisions. Blalock stayed at third and turned into an All-Star. Young stayed at second and hit .306 with over 200 hits for the first of five straight seasons. Teixeira made the team as the designated hitter and backup first baseman while Palmeiro played out the final season of a five-year contract.

Palmeiro hit 38 home runs that season — including the 500th of his career — and drove in 112 runs, and was cast aside to free agency.

So was Gonzalez, who was starting to have trouble staying healthy. A-Rod was traded to the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias. Pudge was already gone, having left as a free agent after the 2002 season.

The Brat Pack had officially taken over. The Rangers went 71-91 under Showalter in 2003, then shocked everybody by almost winning the division in 2004. They stayed in contention late into September before finishing 89-73, three games behind the first-place Angels. It was the Rangers’ first winning season since 1999.

Blalock was a big part of the turnaround. He hit .300 with 29 home runs and followed that by hitting .276 with 32 home runs and 110 RBIs in 2004. He was one of five Rangers who went to the All-Star Game along with Young, Soriano, Kenny Rogers and reliever Francisco Cordero. Teixeira didn’t get picked, but he hit 38 home runs and drove in 112 runs, meaning Palmeiro was not missed at all.

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Blalock was especially a big hit with the fans. Out in left field, the grassroots Hank’s Homies Fan Club was born April 24, 2004, when Blalock hit a monster home run in the eighth inning of a scoreless game against the Mariners. The Rangers won 3-0, and Hank’s Homies became an integral part of the Ballpark in Arlington scene that year and in seasons to come.

“Hank started out like crazy, went to a couple All-Star games, hit the big homer, was a huge part of our team,” Young said. “It was definitely more of a transition time for our team. It was an interesting time. The organization was in a bit of a flux. They were kind of leaning on Hank, Tex and me to get this thing going. He was a great teammate, always fun to be around. Funny, funny dude.”

The Rangers thought enough of Blalock to sign him to a five-year contract in the spring of 2004 even though he wouldn’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2008 season. The new contract also included a $6.5 million option for 2009.

When frustration set in

Yet, 2004 was the high point for Blalock in his time with the Rangers. He never went to another All-Star Game, and the Rangers lost much of the excitement claimed during the 2004 season.

Blalock just wasn’t the same hitter after 2004. In 2003 and 2004, he had a combined slash line of .287/.352/.511 for an .863 OPS. In 2005 and 06, his slash line fell to .264/.321/.417 for a .738 OPS.

It was a frustrating time for the Rangers, their players, the media and the fans. The 2004 season had created great expectations for the Brat Pack, and the Rangers couldn’t keep it going. Their starting pitching just wasn’t there, even in 2004 when reality was a lights-out bullpen and the offense had covered up much of the rotation’s deficiencies.

As the Rangers struggled on the mound, the young players bristled in the clubhouse, voicing their frustrations with ownership, Hart and, finally, Showalter. The kids wanted better pitching, not realizing the owner was on the road to bankruptcy court and not realizing that any trade for pitching would involve saying goodbye to one of their own.

Jon Daniels replaced Hart after a 79-83 record in 2005, and the reality of what teams wanted from the Rangers started to hit home. That winter, Daniels tried to include Blalock in a deal with the Marlins for No. 1 starter Josh Beckett. The deal fell through, but Daniels wasn’t done.

He traded first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young — one of the Rangers’ few decent pitching prospects — to the Padres for veteran pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. It didn’t help — little did when it came to pitching — and Showalter was fired after an 80-82 record in 2006.

Ron Washington was hired, and Blalock showed up in camp in 2007 telling people how much he loved the game again.

“It got stale around here for a couple of years,” Blalock told the Star-Telegram. “With the new manager and new players, there’s a winning attitude. Everyone is somewhat looser around here. It’s a really comfortable environment to play in.”

Injuries arrive

That was until mid-May, when Blalock underwent surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder. He missed 3 1/2 months although he hit .313 with a .656 slugging percentage as a DH in September.

Unfortunately, Blalock was limited to 65 games in 2008 with hamstring, shoulder and wrist injuries, making it two seasons in a row he played in less than half the Rangers’ games.

Shoulder injuries also eroded his ability to play third base. The Rangers shifted him to first base over the final five weeks of the 2008 season, and it was clear that third was no longer an option.

The Rangers still picked up his option for 2009, mainly because they felt he could help the club at designated hitter. First base was reserved for Chris Davis, who had made a big impact as a rookie in 2008 by hitting .285 with 17 home runs, 55 RBIs and a .549 slugging percentage in 80 games.

That offseason the Rangers also decided to go with untested rookie Elvis Andrus as their shortstop, forcing Young to move to third base.

On Opening Day in 2009, Blalock batted fifth and was the DH against the Indians. Facing Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, Blalock went 2-for-4 with a home run and three RBIs in the Rangers 9-1 victory.

“I hope all those injury issues are behind me,” Blalock said. “Spring training indicated that. Let’s hope that continues.”

Blalock could still hit with occasional power. He hit 25 home runs in 123 games in 2009 but with 66 RBIs, a .234 batting average and a .459 slugging percentage. The Rangers made no attempt to re-sign him, and neither did anybody else.

He finally took a minor-league contract with the Rays halfway through spring training but didn’t make the team and began the year at Triple A Durham. He was called up in mid-May and spent six weeks with the Rays, hitting .254 with one home run and seven RBIs in 26 games.

The Rays released him on July 8. He was all of 29 when he played his final major-league game. His home run in the 2003 All-Star Game remains one of the biggest in Rangers history.

 

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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