The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 30, 2013

A Don McCormack column: A Blair for the dramatic!

Former Falcon Zak Blair off to blazing start in Arizona

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

— Zak Blair’s personality has pretty much always been geared toward baseball and the tools of his trade match that perfectly.

As in, walk softly and carry a big stick.

Three weeks into his professional baseball career, the former Jefferson star is doing exactly that.

Playing for the Arizona League Cubs, the Mercyhurst University graduate is swinging a red-hot bat, to the tune of a robust .444 clip.

So much so, in fact, he is leading the entire 13-team league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), hits and RBI.

In other words, the first-year Cub is proving to be a bear for AZL hurlers.

“It’s gone really, really well,” the 20th-round draft pick of the Cubs said in a telephone interview at 2 a.m. Sunday (11 p.m. Arizona time) after just leaving the ballpark following an 8-6 Cubs win against the AZL Athletics in Mesa.

Blair led the hit parade for the Cubs in the victory, going 3-for-4, with two doubles, three runs batted in, two runs scored and a walk.

“It was a good day,” the son of David and Carol Blair said.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound left-handed swinging infielder laughed when made that obvious understatement.

Blair’s humble reaction when quizzed about how things have been going is a byproduct of a game in which how a player deals with failure is more important than how he handles success.

“I would never call baseball a job, because it’s my dream, but I can see what guys do drop out of the game,” he said. “Because it really is such a game of failure... and how you deal with it.”



The routine

Blair took me through a typical day for him in his new life.

“Well, first, I’m living in a Best Western,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not a hotel, it’s a motel. I live with a guy from Seton Hall.

“I wake up before 10 and get some breakfast, then go back to the room and watch some TV and relax. I’m at the ballpark by 1:45 to get in some extra work and break a little sweat.

“After that, I go back to the locker room and grab a bit to eat, with lots of fruit and water. At 3, we go out for what they call ‘early work,’ on a half-field, which is only an infield, and we take ground balls, work on double plays and situations.

“Basically, we have a two-hour practice before we play each game. After the early work, we take a break and go play the game.

“It’s pretty regimented.”



Feelin’ the heat

Blair has seen — and felt — the extreme heat wave that is gripping the Southwest.

“It really is unbelievable,” he said. “During the day, it’s 120 degrees. Right now, I just got off the field and it’s 11 p.m. and it’s 100 degrees.”

Blair admits the heat has been a shock to his system.

“I’ve eaten so many bananas, you wouldn’t believe it!” he said with a laugh. “And I’ve already been through several cases of water.

“It’s a situation that during games, every time you come off the field, you have to take several drinks of water. It’s not easy to stay hydrated. In fact, it’s very difficult.”

So difficult, in fact, it’s almost suffocating.

“Absolutely,” Blair said. “It’s kind of difficult to breathe, at times.

“I kind of feels like a sauna.”



Staying in touch

Being 3,000 miles away doesn’t mean Blair has lost touch with his family, who has been following him around from ballfield to ballfield for the great majority of his 23 years.

“Hey, I’m an only child, so I’m used to a lot of attention from my family,” he said through another laugh. “I’m very close with my family and I’ve been in touch with them quite a bit and that helps so much.

“In fact, I just got off the phone with my dad right before we began this conversation. I call him to let him know how I did, then I realize it’s 11 here, but it’s 2 a.m. back in Ohio.

“He answers the phone and he’s obviously very tired, but he always wants to know how things are going. I could talk baseball with him all night.”



Staying the course

Even though the level he’s playing has been upgraded, and while the heat is on — literally, Blair hasn’t changed his approach to the game... or life.

“I’m just trying to keep working hard, keep my nose to the grindstone and see where it takes me,” he said.

And that has yet to be decided. In the meantime, Blair is content playing second base for the AZL Cubs, managed by Bobby Mitchell, a former major-league outfielder with the Yankees (1970) and the Brewers (1971 through 1975).

“I haven’t heard anything about moving on,” he said. “The way I figure it, if I keep busting my tail, working as hard as I can and hitting the ball, they’ll find a place for me.

“And that’s all I can ask.”



Core beliefs

Don’t believe for a second leading the Arizona League in almost every offensive category will be going to Blair’s head any time soon.

In fact, anyone who knows him won’t hesitate to declare going to the opposite extreme is the more likely situation for Blair, who with his Cubs teammates took on the Arizona League Indians late last night.

“I’m here bust my tail and to take advantage of every opportunity,” he said. “To me, this is just another chapter in the story of my life — I always have something to prove to someone, including myself.

“I hope to earn an opportunity and have hard work pay off.”

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.