In O’s glory years, Blair made the impossible grabs seem routine

News tonight that former Orioles center fielder Paul Blair has died at 69 hits hard. It’s another of the players from the team’s glory years gone too soon, another piece of Baltimore baseball history we’ll no longer be able to reminisce with.

I’ll remember how he glided across the outfield green on 33rd Street, making the impossible seem routine. And the smile perpetually on his face.

Blair was quite simply the best center fielder I ever saw, and growing up in Baltimore during the 1960s and 1970s, I saw a lot of him. I’d watch in amazement as he took his position in shallow center field, wondering what would happen if an opposing batter struck a ball over his head. And when it looked as if someone had, Blair would race back, long loping steps seemingly reeling the ball toward him and make the catch on the warning track. Memorial Stadium would exhale, the home team’s pitcher would nod in appreciation from the mound and Blair would trot back to his normal position, daring another batter to go ahead and try.

The only balls hit over his head, Blair liked to say, were home runs. Hank Bauer and Earl Weaver might bristle at how shallow he played, but they couldn’t argue with the results.

Eight times a Gold Glove winner (seven straight from 1969-75), Blair spent 13 of his 17 major league seasons in an Orioles uniform. With the O’s, he played in four World Series, winning a pair, in 1966 and 1970. He was traded to the Yankees in January 1977 in a deal that brought Elliott Maddox to Baltimore, and twice reached the Fall Classic in pinstripes. One of the most vivid non-Orioles highlights of his career came June 18, 1977, when Yankees manager Billy Martin sent him to right field to replace Reggie Jackson after Jackson had misplayed a Jim Rice fly ball into a double. Jackson returned to the dugout and came to blows with Martin.

Years later, when I asked Blair about the incident, he merely shook his head disdainfully and rolled his eyes. Blair wasn’t used to such shenanigans, being a disciple of the Oriole Way. (Seth Gilliam, who played Charm City cop Ellis Carver on “The Wire” portrayed Blair in the ESPN mini-series “The Bronx is Burning.”)

Luckily, his Orioles tenure was much more memorable. In the 1966 World Series, he went deep off Claude Osteen, a 430-foot blast in the fifth that gave Wally Bunker a 1-0 win over the Dodgers in Game 3; made a homer-robbing catch of a Jim Lefebvre fly ball that would have tied Game 4, and then caught Lou Johnson’s fly ball to end the improbable four-game sweep. In Game 2 of the 1969 World Series against the Mets, Blair singled to break up Jerry Koosman’s no-hit bid; in Game 3, a spectacular catch by Tommie Agee robbed him of extra bases and he finished the Series 2-for-20. Blair batted .474 as the Orioles beat Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine a year later.

Not all the memories were happy. In May 1970, the Angels’ Ken Tatum threw a pitch in Blair’s face, breaking his nose. Three weeks later, Blair was back in the lineup.

Thirteen years in orange and black brought a .254 average and more defensive highlights than you could shake a Louisville Slugger at. He was turning Web Gems before ESPN was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. No wonder Major League Baseball chose Blair to hand out Gold Gloves a couple of years ago when it started televising the postseason awards show.

Blair was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1984, and frequently made appearances at Camden Yards over the years. He coached college ball at Fordham and Coppin State, and pined for a chance to coach in the majors, but hinted that his outspokenness about racism in baseball hurt his chances. But whenever Blair showed up at an Orioles function to sign autographs and chat about the good old days, the fans greeted him warmly. The guy nicknamed “Motormouth” was just as much Baltimore baseball royalty as Brooks, Frank, Boog and Cakes. He wanted nothing more than to see the Orioles win again, as was the norm during his time in their uniform.

Back in 2007, when he appeared at the preseason FanFest at Camden Yards, I asked Blair was it was like to have a throng of fans barely old enough to remember his playing days clamoring for his signature.

“They still remember me,” Blair said, almost incredulous, as he stared at the line snaking away from a table on the club level. “I haven’t played in 27 years, so it’s nice to know people still know you were a ballplayer.”

With his impressive body of work, the pride he took in his accountability as a teammate and his devotion to Baltimore, how could we have forgotten?

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