PAWTUCKET – Seth Blair’s story reads like a Hollywood script: Pitcher throws in the towel, experiences a change of heart, undergoes great lengths to revamp his game, then receives a shot to prove himself in a way he hadn’t before.
Mind you the baseball part is merely the tip of the iceberg when analyzing the road traveled by Blair, a 31-year-old member of the Red Sox taxi squad which officially lowered the curtain on their McCoy Stadium experience early Friday afternoon. Perhaps next season, Blair will come face-to-face with his moment of truth, a climax that serves as the ultimate reminder that everything he’s endured – every trial and tribulation that’s taken place on and off the field – has been worth it.
As if the righthander who’s never logged innings above Triple-A needs any additional motivation, he came face-to-face with what life could be like a few weeks ago. For Blair, a recent Sunday morning workout at Fenway Park suggested he was close, yet not quite there.
“He sent me a video along with ‘This would be a pretty good place to go to work every day,’” said Donnie Chappell, Blair’s baseball head coach at Rock Falls High School, located in Illinois.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said.
Blair was a desired commodity coming out of Rock Falls High but opted to attend Arizona State after the Oakland Athletics drafted him in the 47th round of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft. Three years later, his stock experienced a significant bump after being named Pacific-10 Pitcher of the Year on the strength of compiling a 12-0 record with a 3.06 ERA and 98 strikeouts and 22 walks in 97 innings pitched for the 2010 Sun Devils.
The St. Louis Cardinals were big believers in Blair, the organization using the 47th selection in the first round of the 2010 draft to select a pitcher deemed to be on the upswing. Four short years later, the potential that made him attractive to St. Louis in the first place had completely faded.
Injuries coupled with ineffectiveness – 62 walks in 81.2 innings in his pro ball debut season, a 6.35 ERA in six Triple-A games – resulted in the Cardinals releasing him after the 2014 season. Blair wound up missing the majority of the 2012 season after a tumor was discovered in his pitching hand, an unfortunate turn that Chappell recalled sparked a lot of interest in his well-being.
“He’s someone who’s been through a lot,” said Chappell.
Compounding matters, Blair found himself engaged in a custody battle for his son Beckham, one that in the pitcher’s words “lasted a little longer than I wanted it to.” Still, did his end of the line with the Cardinals in 2014 at age 25 mean the time had come to play taps on his dream of reaching the major leagues?
“At that point, his mind was made up that it wasn’t working out for him. He was still struggling with command – something he never did until he got to pro ball,” said Chappell, who knew Blair long before becoming his high school coach. “When he was a kid, the best way to get to him was to take away his baseball gear when he was grounded. I never met a kid who loved the game more.
“When it ended for him with the Cardinals, you could just tell it wasn’t there for him anymore,” Chappell added. “You didn’t talk him out of it. You talked to him about [the decision to exit stage left].”
Publicly, Blair offered the impression that he was retired. Privately, he always kept the light on about someday possibly returning to baseball.
“Deep inside of me, I knew I would come back. A lot of people around me didn’t know if it would actually happen,” said Blair, who transitioned from making a living in the minor leagues to making an earning as a salesman.
An important development regarding his son needed to occur before Blair could fully launch his comeback bid.
"For me, family is most important. I wanted to take care of that before I got back to playing again,” he said.
At the urging of friends, Blair in 2017 joined an adult baseball league. There was no firm commitment – he would take the hill once every two months. Warming up before a playoff game, he was informed that he hit 97 miles per hour on the radar gun.
Still got it, was the conclusion he drew. A video that would hopefully generate interest from the MLB community was sent to D.J. Carrasco, an eight-year MLB pitcher and current pitching coach of Triple-A Syracuse. Carrasco has ties to Arizona, which is where Blair lives these days.
“I felt myself liking the competition,” said Blair about immersing himself back into a game that once offered so much promise and hope.
Chappell also went the extra mile to spread the word concerning Blair. One weekend, Chappell was visiting his daughter in New Jersey. He happened to cross paths with Harold Reynolds – 12-year MLB veteran, analyst on MLB Tonight – at a beach club. Tapping into his vast reservoir of connections across the game, Reynolds reached out on Blair’s behalf. Next thing he knew, the San Diego Padres were knocking on the door with an opportunity to pitch in Single-A ball in the California League.
Looking back on his re-entry into pro ball in 2019, Blair says he had mixed emotions. Five years had elapsed since the last time he set foot in a minor league clubhouse. In some ways, making the seismic jump from competing with his buddies to the cut-throat, perform-or-else MiLB world proved to be an eye-opener. By the same token, Blair was fully invested in making the most of the next phase of his comeback pursuit.
“I wasn’t exactly sure I was ready to be playing baseball because I was planning on playing adult league baseball. Sure enough, I found myself enjoying it. It was fun to compete again. I thought I could do a good job,” said Blair.
Blair totaled 17 appearances (two starts) for San Diego’s affiliate in Lake Elsinore, posting a 4.11 ERA in 35 innings. With less than a month to go in the 2019 season, he received the second release notice of his career. Unlike the Cardinals, the notification from the Padres didn’t sting quite as much. Deep down, Blair believed another chance was lurking out there.
A major weight was lifted off Blair’s shoulders this past January. He was officially awarded custody to of his son, who’s now six years old. The next month, he began his throwing program in earnest with an eye towards landing a job with an Independent League ballclub. Then came the arrival of COVID-19, a jarring development that afforded Blair more time to train – and tinker.
Messing around in his backyard during quarantine – more on that in a bit – Blair started throwing from a three-quarter angle as opposed to over the top. The velocity (high 90s) was intriguing. Not many drop-and-drive pitchers are blessed with the ability to hit 90 miles per hour, but Blair could reach that and dial up plenty more.
“It’s not an easy change to make,” noted PawSox pitching coach Paul Abbott.
“It makes for an uncomfortable at-bat,” said Shawn Haviland, Red Sox pitching coordinator of performance who sat next to Abbott for every simulated game at McCoy.
“The command was there and my arm didn’t hurt,” said Blair.
In an effort to market himself, Blair discovered that it was imperative to incorporate many of the data-driven points that are paramount in today’s MLB culture. Things sure had changed in the 10 years since getting picked by the Cardinals.
“I didn’t know about TrackMan or Spin Rate. Ultimately, I knew the best chance that I would have was to put myself in a position where I had the stuff that would be able to play on TV,” said Blair. “I know a lot of people are against the data, but a lot of it is quantifying what we have already felt our entire time pitching.”
Asked to further expand on the “TV reference, Blair meant that he wanted Beckham to be able to see his dad square off against major league hitters. When Beckham was three, Blair arranged the backyard of his Scottsdale, Ariz. home into a mini-batting cage. Over time, a mound was added along with a trampoline that became Blair’s target to further work on his revamped delivery.
When COVID-19 shuttered a number of indoor facilities, Blair became the most popular guy on his Arizona block with pitchers who sought to stay sharp. Once a radar gun was added to the backyard, Blair began welcoming all comers – from promising prospects to veteran pitchers like himself who sought to stay prepared so they wouldn’t have to get ready just in case the call came.
What became known as “Backyard Baseball” on Instagram caught the fancy of the New York Times, which sent a reporter and a photographer to Arizona to tell the story about how Blair created this real life version of “Field of Dreams.”
"It kind of turned into the place everybody was searching to throw 100 mph. Luckily, a couple of people did and it built some crazy energy,” said Blair. “Honestly, the whole thing kind of felt like a surreal experience. The quarantine itself was pretty weird for everybody. For me, the way the world was working, it all seemed so negative, yet I was having this really positive experience. I just got into my own little world.
“I was grateful to have my backyard be featured in the New York Times, but really, that wasn’t what it was about. The baseball part was what I thought was really awesome. All my friends and the new people I got to meet … that is the stuff that is cool about all of this."
It was Blair’s mother who informed Chappell about the piece in the Times.
“That was really neat to see,” said Chappell. “Nothing has ever surprised me about Seth. He could have been a Division I college basketball player if he wanted to.”
The Red Sox were one of a dozen teams to express interest in Blair. As a lifelong Boston fan, that development was music to Chappell’s ears.
“When you see someone throwing nearly 100 miles an hour from the side, that’s going to get your attention,” said Chappell.
Blair officially signed with the Sox on Aug. 7. By that point, the conversion to throwing from the side was still in its relative infancy. During his time at the PawSox’ home ballpark, he’s succeeded in turning plenty of heads based off his ability to generate so much power with the fastball while commanding his slider. Typically, he’s been used for no more than two innings when it’s been his turn to appear in a simulated game, a sign that Boston prefers to utilize the hard thrower as a reliever.
“If he throws strikes, I think he’s going to make his way more into the conversation about potentially helping the big league club,” said PawSox manager Billy McMillon.
From a guy who was once on the radar only to fall completely off said radar, Blair appears to have found harmony behind a seismic metamorphosis in his pitching delivery. Judging by his 2020 status as a member of the Red Sox’ 60-person player pool, he’s as close now to the majors more than at any point in his career. Of note, his deal with Boston contained an invitation to 2021 spring training.
“I’m hoping he gets a day up there,” said Chappell. “He deserves this.”
As for Beckham, Blair admitted that it was hard to say goodbye and be apart for what amounted to seven weeks away from his son. Still, there was the matter of keeping his eye firmly on the prize that hopefully materializes when Beckham turns on the TV and sees his 6-foot-2 father stand tall on an MLB mound.
“My dream is to play in the major leagues. For me as a dad, I feel like I would not be doing the right thing by turning down something like this,” said Blair. “He’ll see in the end that this was all about him.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03