By DON McCORMACK - firstname.lastname@example.org
They’ve both been playing baseball since they were pretty much able to walk.
Through a decade and a half of hard work, from Little League, travel ball and college baseball, Zak Blair and Brandon Easton feel prepared to take the next step, should the opportunity be provided.
With the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft tipping off today, those chances could be on their respective doorsteps. The first and second rounds will be held today (MLB Network, 7 p.m. EDT), with the remaining 38 rounds to be completed Friday and Saturday.
The two Ashtabula County products — Blair from Jefferson and Easton from Pymatuning Valley — use almost identical refrains when asked about what their hopes and expectations are in the next few days.
“I’m nervous, I admit it,” Blair, a middle infielder who just graduated from Mercyhurst a week and a half ago said through a laugh. “But, in turn, I’m also very excited.
“It’s been a long road to this point, and, yeah, a lot of hard work and help from so many good people, but it’s all been worth it.”
Easton, a left-handed pitcher who just finished his freshman campaign at Lakeland Community College, had many of the same thoughts.
“I just want a uniform and a chance to play baseball,” he said through a laugh. “Really, that’s all ballplayers want — an opportunity to get out on the field, play and show what we can do.
“I want an opportunity to show people what I’m made of.”
Along those lines, Blair and Easton had similar things to say.
“All my life, a lot of people have been telling me I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that... especially, not go on and play baseball,” the son of David and Carol Blair said. “To have the chance to prove a lot of people wrong and show everyone a kid from Jefferson, playing college ball at a D-II school can play the game and play it well.
“Where you’re from shouldn’t make a difference. And I’m not the biggest guy around (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) in terms of physical stature, so I’m not catching anyone’s attention with anything but how I play.
“It’s that kind of thing that would make getting an opportunity to play at the next level even more special.”
Easton, the son of Bryan and Debra Easton, almost echoed Blair.
“Really, it amazes me it’s come to this point and I’ve come this far,” he said. “Guys from our area don’t get noticed a lot, I know. In fact, I didn’t get noticed until this year, so to maybe have the chance to go to the next level and be given a uniform and a chance to play would be amazing.
“All I ask for is a chance. That’s all I want, really.”
Blair is coming off a senior season at Mercyhurst that was, by his standards, not up to expectations.
“I hit .329, which is OK, but not what I’m used to and certainly not what I’m capable of,” he said. “In previous years, I hit .370 and .365, and I hit .340 in the Cape Cod League last summer.
“At school this year, we had a much younger team and I hit in the 3-hole. Teams were pitching around me and, I admit, I’d get frustrated because I want my team to win ballgames, so I ended up chasing a lot of pitches I shouldn’t have.”
Blair said that frustration grew as his senior season progressed.
“Through the first 25 games or so, I was hitting around .465,” he said. “But as I started seeing fewer and fewer pitches to hit, I started trying to do too much. I’d try to jerk the ball out of the ballpark so we could win games instead of focusing on hitting line drives, like I should.
“That’s why my numbers aren’t what they should have been or what I expected them to be.”
Easton, on the other hand, flourished this spring for Lakeland.
He was named Ohio Community College Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year after posting a 3-1 record, a 1.89 earned run average, striking out 38 and allowing only 22 hits in 33.1 innings of action in league play. Included in those efforts was a 17-strikeout, 3-hit triumph against North Central Missouri College.
For the season, Easton was 3-3 with a 2.36 ERA. In eight starts, four of which he completed, he worked 49.2 innings and gave up only 32 hits and 13 earned runs, striking out 66 and walking but 32.
“It really was the first time I was noticed,” Easton said. “(Lakeland coach) Howie (Krause) did a great job making sure I was seen and noticed.”
Both Blair and Easton have hopes and, admittedly, expectations of getting a telephone call from a big-league club sometime in the next three days.
“My agent, Tony Catanzarite (from Arrow Sports Agency out of Cleveland), is in touch with all the scouts and the teams,” Blair said. “He’s hearing I could be drafted anywhere from the fifth through the 10th round.
“But, really, you never know because drafts are kind of fickle in that you never know what’s going to happen.”
“I’ve worked out for 11 teams, but they really don’t tell you where to expect to get drafted, if that chance even comes,” Easton said. “All I did was go out there for all of them and use the 30 to 40 pitches I had to show them what I have.”
What he “has” is a four-pitch mix — 2- and 4-seam fastballs, a 12-6 curve and a circle changeup. While his velocity is solid — 88 to 91 and touching 92 on the gun — it’s not his fastball that is his calling card.
“My curveball is really my go-to pitch,” he said.
Not to mention, the ability to add muscle to his 6-5, 190-pound frame.
“There’s that, too,” Easton said with a laugh. “I’m told I could add 20 to 30 pounds and increase my velocity even more. I’d love the ability to throw in the mid-90s.”
As they anxiously watch the screens of their cells, though, the two former Ashtabula County stars know they are realizing a dream.
“Every kid grows up wanting to be a pro ballplayer,” Blair said. “I was no different and I hope and pray I get the chance to live out that dream.
“I’m truly blessed to be a guy who was a little kid from Jefferson and maybe, just maybe, get a chance to play professional baseball.”
“It’s been a ton of hard work, but it really is worth it,” Easton said. “I’m amazed at how quickly time has seemed to fly by, now, and to know where I’m right now.
“To know where I’ve come from and to be where I’m at now... wow, it just amazes me. All I can ask for is a chance... a chance to prove myself.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Give me a chance and I’ll go anywhere to play.”