Three days before Christmas, Paul Blair felt the pain. It was as if he’d hit the fence, chest first, while chasing a fly ball.
Rushed to Howard County General Hospital, Blair, the former Orioles’ outfielder, learned he had suffered a heart attack.
“Doctors said that my main (coronary) artery was 98 percent blocked,” said Blair, 66, of Woodstock. “If it had closed up, they said I could have cancelled Christmas.”
Instead, surgeons inserted a stent in the artery and prescribed four months of physical therapy for Blair, who expects to complete it this week. What are a few aerobics for a guy who spent 12 years prowling center field for Baltimore, making diving, leaping and over-the-shoulder heists that won games and wowed fans?
Eight times, Blair won a coveted Gold Glove award, including seven straight from 1969 to 1975. Only Brooks Robinson (16) won more defensive honors as an Oriole.
A mainstay during the club’s golden era, Blair helped the Birds win two World Series. It was his bat that turned the tide. In 1966, he tagged a Claude Osteen fastball for a 430-foot home run and a 1-0 Game Three victory in the sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“That was the longest home run I ever hit,” said Blair, then 22 years old. “I ran around the bases thinking, ‘This is Fantasyland.’ I mean, four years earlier, I’d been in high school – and now this?”
In the 1970 World Series, Blair batted a team-high .474, a feat overshadowed by Robinson’s stellar play at third base against the Cincinnati Reds.
Likewise, Blair is remembered as a defensive whiz, an outfielder who seemed to taunt hitters by playing shallow and then running down balls if they tagged them good.
“I had no fear out there,” said Blair. “I mean, I didn’t play (sluggers like Minnesota’s) Harmon Killebrew right behind second base. But I felt that if the ball stayed in the park, I could catch it.
“I worked hard at being a good outfielder, too. That was my way of getting to play every day. I figured that even if I was in a (batting) slump, the pitchers still wanted me out there to offset the mistakes they made.”
During batting practice, at Memorial Stadium, Blair would work on scaling the chain link fence in center field, over and over, until he’d memorized the best spots to plant his feet.
“I did that against Boston, going way over the fence to get a ball hit by Tony Conigliaro,” he said. “One of the best catches I ever made.”
In 1977, mired in a two-year batting slump, Blair was sent to the New York Yankees. Word was that he had never fully recovered from a beaning seven years earlier that left him shy at the plate. Not so, Blair said.
“What hurt me more was when the Orioles traded Frank Robinson in 1971,” he said. “I’d batted second, and Frank hit third. With him in there, all I saw was fastballs, because who would walk me to get to Frank? But with (Robinson) gone, I started getting sliders and change-ups, which were harder to hit. And I didn’t have the discipline, at the plate, that I had in the field.”
Blair retired in 1980 and coached for a spell – in college (Fordham, Coppin State) and the pros (Yankees, Orioles, Houston). Married, he has three children and four grandchildren. One son, Terry, died in 1994. Another, Paul Blair III, signed with the Chicago Cubs and got as far as Triple-A.
The heart attack behind him, Blair plays golf almost daily, bowls several times a week and rails at the Orioles’ misfortunes.
“There’s no reason for a team that was the best in baseball to now be the worst,” he said. “What’s lacking? Leadership. Discipline. Fundamentals.
“In my day, the Orioles won because we didn’t make mistakes. This team makes them over and over, and nobody corrects them.”
Does Blair think he could set the team straight?
“At my age, I doubt that any club will call and ask for my help,” he said. “But I could take the Orioles today and make them a better ball club.
“I know, in my heart, that I could turn this team around.”