Charlie Blackmon Was Back in Texas Last Week, Where His Life In Baseball Changed Dramatically
Former big-league outfielder Rusty Greer got home from a special camp he is running at his Baseball Academy outside of Arlington, Tex., and glanced at his cell phone.
His eyes lit up.
There was a text message from Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who was in town for the Rockies week-long visit to Arlington, where the Rockies and Texas Rangers played two exhibition games last week in advance of a regular-season-opening three-game series last weekend.
Even though the Rockies players were pretty much kept in isolation, Blackmon just wanted to touch base with Greer.
"I wanted him to know I was thinking about him," said Blackmon.
After all, Greer is the one that cleared the way for Blackmon's dream-come-true big-league career. Blackmon was a left-handed relief specialist in junior college and at Georgia Tech. He battled an ailing arm that junior year at Tech.
"I pitched two innings the whole year," he said. "My arm was bugging me. I was coming back from bone spurs and was super inconsistent. I wasn't very good. But I wanted to play baseball. I hit a little bit in junior college, but I had not played a position since high school.
"It wasn't like I thought I was going to be a great hitter. I just wanted to play. I wanted to get on the field. I told Rusty I was a two-way player. Sean Devine, one of my teammates at George Tech, went out there with me and I told him to keep quiet."
Greer listened to the campaign to be a position player, and initially had Blackmon as a DH/relief pitcher. That, however, didn't last long. He became a Blackmon believer.
"At the end of the day, he wanted to play," said Greer. "He would have done anything he had to do to keep playing. That's one of the qualities I admire in Charlie."
With the admiration came a commitment on Greer's part to give Blackmon a legitimate shot in the field.
"The first ball hit was driven, hard to right-center field," said Greer. "He was running easy. He could fly. He had those long legs. He would catch the ball on the run. I was thinking, "This guy is an outfielder.' I called Georgia Tech and told them they have to look at this guy as an outfielder.
"I didn't see at the end of the road him being in the big leagues as a pitcher. With that desire and want to . . . to play like that. He was a guy who liked the competition."
That serious stare that is a trademark of Blackmon came natural, Greer said.
"He was focused, like he knew he was going to accomplish something," said Greer. "I never thought he would have the power he has. I mean, he was 6-2, 6-3 and maybe 185 pounds. One of the thing that makes people successful is the ability to have that laser focus."
When Blackmon got back to school, Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall agreed to give him a look as a position player.
"I come back, and it's `All right, you think you are a hitter now,'" Blackmon remembers Hall saying.
Blackmon knew he was going to have to earn this opportunity -- the hard way.
"I remember that first workout in the fall," said Blackmon. "The first guy I face in an intra-squad game is our Friday night pitcher, David Duncan. He's lefhanded. He's 6-foot-9, 230 (pounds). He was the fifth-round draft choice of the Astros. I wasn't really excited he was going to be my first at-bat.
"He threw a fastball over the plate and I hit it as good as I can hit a baseball. It goes way out. In intra-squad games, you don't hit a home run and run the bases. I touched first base and headed back to the dugout. Danny Hall is laughing, completely laughing. He doesn't know what to think. I am thinking I was meant to be an outfielder. I was a hitter."
He was a good enough hitter that he was the Rockies second-round selection in the 2008 draft -- much to the surprise of Blackmon, and to be honest most scouting directors. Blackmon was a senior who was make a late-in-college transition from reliever to outfielder.
“When it’s just one season, you have to get someone’s attention early enough that they are going to pay enough attention to you that when it comes to the draft, they are willing to push hard for you,” Blackmon said. “I was a one-year wonder. Going in the second round was crazy high. I was thinking the 15th to 20th rounds would be good.”
By the time teams were finalizing their draft lists, however, Blackmon had made a believer of Hall. How big a believer? Big enough that he convinced Rockies special assistant Danny Montgomery that Blackmon was the real deal.
“I flew in on Sunday to see a kid at a Sunday game, (and) coach Hall tells me to keep an eye on his center fielder, that the kid had been a pitcher, but he’s hitting now,” Montgomery said. “He told me, ‘Rusty Greer worked with him during the summer and kept saying I need to let the guy hit, so I let the guy hit.’”
Montgomery showed up for the Sunday game and kept an eye on Blackmon. He liked what he saw.
“Tech had a makeup game on Monday, so I decided to stay another day and see (Blackmon) again,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t tell anybody, not even our area scout. I show up on Monday and I am sitting at the top of the stadium, away from everybody else. I like him.”
How much did Montgomery like Blackmon? He liked him enough that he got scouting director Bill Schmidt to select Blackmon in the second round, a pick that had most scouting directors shaking their heads in disbelief. If they had reports on Blackmon, they were the kind that would have had him going in the 20th round or later.
“I’m not knocking anybody, but after what Danny Hall told me and what I saw I was like, ‘Wow, look at this guy,’” Montgomery said.
Blackmon certainly isn’t a sleeper anymore.
He is a three-time All-Star, and has twice received a Silver Slugger Award. He has joined Duke Snider and Willie Mays as the only outfielders in MLB history to have three consecutive seasons of 100 runs scored and 25 home runs. And in winning the NL batting title with a .331 average hitting leadoff, he set an MLB record with 103 RBI out of the lead-off position.
To hear Schmidt tell the story, he wasn’t a gamble as a second-round pick, despite the second-guessing Schmidt faced from other teams when Blackmon’s name was called.
“It’s what makes scouts like D-Mont so valuable,” said Schmidt. “They look for ‘it,’ and they aren’t afraid to step up and speak out when they feel they have found someone special.”
And the man who can't be overlooked in the scenario is Greer. He's the one who stepped up for Blackmon in getting him the opportunity to play the outfield that senior year at George Tech, which was the foundation for what has transpired since.
"I like to think I had a little bit of direction in Charlie's path," said Greer, "but he's the one who gets credit for what he has done. He is the one who put that work and effort in."