Blair sees the other side Winner with Orioles tries to build at Coppin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As an Oriole, Paul Blair was accustomed to winning. As Coppin State's baseball coach, he has become familiar with losing.

Blair was part of four pennant-winning teams with the Orioles (and two with the New York Yankees). With the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament beginning Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla., his Coppin team has lost 42 of 43 games in 1998.

"We have 13 players and three pitchers, and it's tough to compete in Division I with a 50-game schedule," Blair said. "The original list had 20 players. We lost four or five to ineligibility and two got sick."

Blair, 54, found his way into this job during a visit to a bowling establishment. Blair, an avid bowler who averages near 200, is a good friend of former Coppin bowling coach Ronelda DeShields. She persuaded him to come speak at the school's athletic banquet last May, where he met Coppin athletic director Fang Mitchell.

A month later, Jason Booker resigned after nine years as Coppin baseball coach. Blair's name was fresh in Mitchell's mind. As Mitchell made his pitch to Blair, he didn't sugarcoat the challenge.

"I did tell him that we didn't have a large scholarship base," Mitchell said. "We were going to need him to help us along. He wanted the opportunity to do what he loves doing, which is to teach baseball."

When Blair retired in 1980, after 17 seasons in the major leagues (including 13 with Baltimore) he hoped for a shot at managing in the majors. Though he had stints as an outfield instructor with the Houston Astros and Yankees and as a third base coach for the Orioles' Triple-A team in Rochester, Blair was stymied in his ,, attempt to reach the majors.

"I gave up on that 10 years ago," said Blair, who coached at Fordham in 1983, going 14-19. "When people will not return a phone call or answer a letter, you know you have no shot. 'D Obviously, playing was all they wanted from me."

A native of Los Angeles, Blair moved back to the Baltimore area in 1988. He suffered the loss of his son, Terry, in 1994. Terry Blair, 29, was being treated for a blood clot in his leg at Union Memorial Hospital when he died.

"The clot moved," Blair said. "A piece broke off, went straight to his heart and killed him instantly.

"When you have a son for 29 years, there are a lot of things that are going to remind you of him."

After he left professional coaching, Blair tried keeping his connection to baseball, participating in autograph signings for Orioles fans and clinics for aspiring players, which supplemented income from his major-league pension.

Coaching Coppin is more of the teaching Blair has done over the years. If he can make the players at Coppin better, he said, that is reward enough.

"I still enjoy working with the kids. That's helping me get through the year," Blair said. "Everything I've gotten is through baseball. If I can help and send some kids to the big leagues, that can be my way of giving back."

Academic suspensions and illnesses wrecked a roster with eight players returning from last season's 16-24 squad. So there were situations like the one Friday, when the team bus waited for a player taking a midterm exam before leaving for a game at West Virginia. With nine players, Coppin lost, 34-4.

The game, which Blair wanted to cancel, was also encouraging. "We scored four runs in the top of the seventh inning when we were down 34-0," Blair said. "The kids didn't quit and showed some heart out there. We're just out-gunned and out-manned."

Things have gotten better. Though the pitching staff of three still poses nearly insurmountable problems -- its ERA is 13.52 -- the team batting average has risen to .245, a marked improvement over the .185 average of a month ago.

The players say Blair is a victim of circumstances.

"You can't blame him, because he got the team late," said sophomore and Glen Burnie native Chris Kovacs. "We've got a lot of people who didn't play last year. It's killing us."

Still, Blair wouldn't have taken the job if he had thought it would be too rough.

"When you inherit, you just go with the team you have," Blair said. "But from here on, it's all on me."

The burden is perhaps greater than Blair would admit. The scholarship base is $30,000. Because one out-of-state player would take nearly half of that and because the budget for recruiting is about $500, Blair must concentrate his efforts in the Baltimore area.

But persuading local talent to attend a school with paltry resources and little or no tradition in baseball will be tough.

Some high school coaches, such as Dave Norton of local power Mount St. Joseph, are skeptical. Norton, whose team is ranked No. 4 among area schools, says that with a small-time schedule -- with marginally more games than Mount St. Joseph plays, no glamorous trips and no big-name opponents -- there's little that Coppin can offer his players.

"They have to get out and play some bigger schools and take some trips down south. If he stays in the Maryland-Virginia area and plays in that conference, that's not going to be appealing to our kids," Norton said.

So -- in a task at which he claims some success -- Blair will search for good athletes who may not be great baseball players, or good baseball players who may not be great athletes.

"I understand and really don't have that much of a problem with it," Blair said. "It's totally important to convince [a player] that it's to his benefit to come here.

"What I look for in a kid is some ability. If a pitcher has a good head, good mechanics and a good arm, we can teach the rest. If a kid has baseball ability, I can develop that."

Blair has some top-quality help in pitching coach Andy Srebroski, who was among the area's elite during his high school career at Northeast before playing at West Virginia and then in the minor leagues.

Though Srebroski says that Coppin wouldn't have been what he was looking for when he came out of high school, he said Blair should have a recruiting edge because of his major-league career -- four world championships, two All-Star Games, eight Gold Gloves.

"That definitely helps," Srebroski said. "Having him right there is going to sway a lot of players and a lot of parents."

Though Mitchell set a five-year plan to turn around Coppin's basketball team, he acknowledges that Blair faces a different challenge.

"I'm a little indifferent to timetables," Mitchell said of Blair, who has a year-to-year contract. "You work as hard as you can. I see someone working hard -- that's all you can ask from that person."

Pub Date: 4/28/98

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