By Rob Rains
It would have been so easy for Seth Blair to quit, to just give up and concede that his career in baseball wasn’t going to work out the way it had played out in his childhood dreams, and move on with his life.
A supplemental first-round pick of the Cardinals in 2010, after a stellar career pitching at Arizona State, it seemed back then that Blair was on a direct path headed to the major leagues.
The journey took a different direction, however. A dozen years later, Blair is still trying to reach his destination. His story includes being released by the Cardinals in 2015, going through the mental, emotional and physical challenges of being out of professional baseball for four years, and spending the Covid summer of 2020 pitching on a mound in the backyard.
All along the way, however, there was one constant: Blair’s dream never died.
“It was always just this feeling I had as a little boy that I wanted to be a major-league baseball player,” Blair said. “There was like this deep-rooted belief that for whatever reason never went away.”
If Blair, as a 21-year-old, had been told everything that would happen to him over the next 12 years, “I don’t know if he would have believed it,” Blair said.
“If you had told a 21-year-old that he would miss four full years of baseball, I think when you are young, the thought of that sounds like too much to overcome,” Blair said. “I’m just super grateful to wake up and know that all of the experiences I’ve had have kind of built the character into me to look forward to the next challenge. Ultimately it never really stops.
“There are times you feel like you have been through hard stuff and then you realize you are still not where you want to be. You stop feeling sorry for yourself and you’re like, ‘It doesn’t matter how far I’ve come until I actually get to where I want to be.’”
Blair’s journey has led him to Durham, N.C., where he is a 33-year-old sidearm reliever on the Durham Bulls, the Triple A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.
He is now a phone call away from the major leagues. Blair says he tries to live in the present and not think about all of the different events that could have derailed his journey, and ended his dreams, somewhere along the way.
“There’s a lot of things that have happened on and off the field that are experiences I’ve had to learn from and grow from,” Blair said. “I feel like I just continuously try to live in the moment and keep going, and hopefully will end up where I want to be, which is in the big leagues.”
The first detour
The first detour on Blair’s road to the majors came on April 30, 2015.
Blair was at the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, Fla., rehabbing his right shoulder, when he was told that he was being released.
“It came as a complete surprise,” Blair said. “I was such a young naïve kid that I didn’t think you could even get released while you were in rehab. I don’t remember exactly what was said but it was along the lines that it was a numbers thing. I can’t remember them saying anything more than that.”
Blair had reached Triple A Memphis for about a month in 2014, making six relief appearances, but his four years pitching in the organization overall were disappointing for him as well as the Cardinals after he was ranked as the eighth best prospect in the farm system by Baseball America before his first pro appearance in 2011.
He made 84 appearances in the system, including 60 starts, and had a career record of 15-22.
“I was frustrated with myself for not being able to do what I thought I could do,” Blair said. “I had the yips. It wasn’t like the worst version of it, but it was a small version of that and it ended up causing me to throw with restrictions. Over time it started making my body hurt.”
Blair spent all of 2013 and most of 2014 at Double A Springfield, where Mike Shildt was the manager.
“I always had respect for Seth because he was a tremendous worker and was a really, really strong competitor,” Shildt said. “I always appreciated how he competed and how strong his desire was, which is clearly still a part of him.
“He was always battling the ability to repeat quality pitches. A lot of guys have trouble with that in the minors, but in his case, he was battling trusting his ability to throw consistent pitches where he wanted to. He was working, he was trying to figure it out. I admired his tenacity.”
In 2014, Blair struck out 48 batters at Springfield – but issued 51 walks.
The Cardinals decided they couldn’t wait any longer for Blair to overcome that issue. Still, his competitive nature and tenacity was on display the day he was released.
“When I left the field (after getting the news) I was like, ‘No big deal,’” Blair said. “Somebody will pick me up and I will sign with them and be back playing this year. I was like, ‘Maybe they are doing me a favor. Maybe I’m not meant to be here in the Cardinals’ organization. I will get healthy somewhere else and start playing.’”
Blair returned home to Arizona, continued his rehab, and soon realized his expectation that he would get healthy and quickly sign with another team wasn’t happening. Months turned into a year; one year turned into two.
His girlfriend, then and now, Abby McGuire, saw what was happening.
“It was very hard,” said McGuire, a native of St. Louis who met Blair when he was pitching in Springfield. “He shut the world down for a couple of years. He was in a pretty dark place emotionally.”
Friends and family kept encouraging Blair to keep going, but he knew his shoulder was hurt. He just didn’t know what was wrong. It took close to two years of training and rehabbing before he finally felt healthy enough to think about trying to play baseball again.
“There were times where you were like, ‘I don’t know why I am even thinking about baseball. I’m not even close to playing right now,’” Blair said.
Said McGuire, “We all encouraged him to keep trying and go for it again and he was always like, ‘I’m not ready yet. I will let you know when I’m ready.’
“I remember the entire time I never felt like baseball was out of our lives. It was still there, no matter what. None of us cared if he worked part-time, just to make sure he could train. We told him, ‘Don’t give up.’”
In addition to being physically ready to pitch again, Blair knew he also had to be emotionally ready. He was dealing with a child custody case involving his son, Beckham, that wasn’t easy.
While training in a local gym, he met and became friends with Jordan Pacheco, who spent six years in the majors, mostly with the Rockies. Pacheco also was rehabbing an injury at the time.
“We were together every morning,” said Pacheco, now the hitting coach for the Rockies’ Triple A team in Albuquerque. “When you find somebody who will hold you accountable, you just kind of stay with them. We did that.”
Pacheco saw Blair decide to take the first steps in his return to baseball, beginning to pitch in sporadic games with a team in an adult men’s league, the Denver Royals.
His journey took another turn during a game he was pitching for the Royals in the fall of 2018.
“I was getting hit, facing a good team, and I ended up telling the coach after the third inning that I didn’t want to play anymore,” Blair said. “I said, ‘I’m done. I’m good. I’m over it. I can’t do this anymore.’
“He said, ‘I will give you $1,000 if we win this game.’ At that point I didn’t have any way of making $1,000 that easily. I said to myself that no matter how I feel I have to buckle up and figure out a way to finish this game. I ended up throwing harder at the end of the game than at the beginning. It kind of propelled me into the next level of whatever was to be. That was really a big turning point through the journey of my time off.
“I found that real deep competition mode that allowed me to feel more like my childhood self. When that feeling came, I was like, ‘Ooh, I want more of that.’ It was financially motivated but ended up teaching me a lesson much deeper than money.”
The Royals won the game. Blair got the promised payment. He doesn’t remember what he did to celebrate, but said it probably included a post-game meal at In-N-Out.
It was time to see where the journey was going to take him next.
“What I’ve come to realize is that you never really know when you are ready,” Blair said. “I had just been doing it for so long, and it gets to the point where you are 30 years old and you need to test yourself to see if it’s something you are going to be able to do or if you need to move on with your life.”
The next steps on the comeback trail
The test came in the summer of 2019. Blair posted a video on the Internet, which found its way to MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, who called and offered to help.
“It was like three days later, I threw for the Padres and they signed me,” Blair said. “It was kind of surreal. I wasn’t really expecting to play, I was just trying to get ready for another adult league experience.”
Blair was sent to the Padres’ Class A team in the California League, a 30-year-old competing against much younger players. He pitched in 17 games, which was enough to come to another realization.
“I enjoyed the competition the most,” he said. “That was the thing that really hit me. I enjoyed it. I felt like I could control my emotions better than when I was with the Cardinals.”
Even when Blair was released by the Padres, he now had even more support and encouragement from family and friends to keep going. He asked his brother to pay to build a pitching mound in his backyard in early 2020. Two weeks later, the pandemic shut down the world – but not Blair’s backyard.
“Nobody had any place to go because all of the facilities were closed,” Blair said. “All the guys I had played with in the past and anyone I knew started coming over to my backyard.”
Two of those friends were Pacheco and Cubs pitcher Danny Hultzen, who became a big part of Blair’s support group.
“We had some awesome conversations about basically everything,” said Hultzen, who had his own long journey through the minors before making it to the Cubs, where he now works as a major-league pitching strategist.
“He and I kind of related over the mental part of the game, the challenges that come along the way and everything that baseball brings; dealing with pressure, outside influences that get in your head and take you away from just playing baseball.
“That was one of the beautiful things about being in that backyard all the time. It was just baseball. For all of the terrible things that were going on, it was a refreshing time in both of our lives to kind of settle down and rethink about what was important to us and why we play the game and why we love it so much.”
Pacheco also was part of those conversations, and a big part of those who kept encouraging Blair to keep going, to keep trying.
“I know just being able to watch him taught me a lot about the game of baseball and a lot about life,” Pacheco said. “You don’t just give up on things that you love. It’s a testament to everything. You don’t give up on your family, you don’t give up on yourself, you don’t give up on anything that you love.”
McGuire was there too, and she saw a change in Blair over those few months.
“Everyone’s life slowed down a little bit at the same time,” she said, because of Covid. “When he was in that dark time, no one else’s lives were slowing down it felt like except his. Now he felt like, ‘I have time. I’m not working from behind anymore. Baseball has kind of paused. I can try to catch up and come back.’ Working around those guys motivated him.”
As part of their workout routine, the group – mostly pitchers – often went to a nearby park in Scottsdale to take groundballs. One particular day, Blair was playing shortstop, with Hultzen at first base, when the next big step in Blair’s journey occurred – by accident.
“There was a slow roller and he charged it and picked it up, fielding it clean, and threw it underhand,” Hultzen said. “It was just as hard, maybe harder, than any ball he threw overhand. It kind of caught me off guard and I said, ‘Dude that was kind of cheezy.’ He just kind of looked at me.
“Then he did a couple more, and started to mess around with it. He was throwing 96 to 100 from down there. It was completely by accident. It wasn’t on purpose. I was like, ‘Holy moly, there’s something there.’”
With the minor-league season canceled, Blair set his sights on signing with a team that would let him go to their alternate site camp. He got offers from the Red Sox and Rays and picked Boston because they gave him a two-year deal.
“All the guys who came through that backyard were able to see what he could do,” Hultzen said. “It was the opposite of ‘don’t try.’ It was like, ‘Dude you should be in the major leagues. You should be living your dream. You have to do this.’ It was insanely encouraging and very powerful to see how he went about his business and how he approached everything with passion and drive. It was an incredible environment for us to be in.
“The guy signed a professional baseball contract throwing baseballs in his backyard. That’s something I will never forget. It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever been around.”
Pacheco was impressed too – but he also wasn’t surprised.
“When you believe in yourself that much and you don’t catch some breaks along the way, you just know, ‘I still have it in the tank and I can still do it,’” Pacheco said. “That’s what he believed. He’s an unbelievable athlete with an unbelievable arm and an unbelievable mind.
“He found a way to keep getting better. He learned more about himself and made himself a better baseball player. I’ve seen him evolve as a person too … He’s an easy guy to root for.”
Getting closer to his destination
Blair split the 2021 season between Double A and Triple A with the Red Sox, pitching in 32 games. The passion that was fueling his comeback was now being boosted by another source as well – his son.
“Getting to see him start his baseball journey kind of really lets you be innocent toward the game,” Blair said. “You kind of acknowledge that it really is just a game. That’s what makes it so fun, and why we love it so much. The competition, the camaraderie among teammates, that’s something you take for granted as a kid but as you get older, if you ever have a time where you don’t get to have it, you miss it.”
Before this season, Blair sent a text message that included data from a bullpen session to the Rays, who still had their reports on him from 2020. Within a couple of hours Blair had a contract offer, including an invitation to the major-league spring training camp.
“They said they wanted to give me an opportunity,” Blair said.
As he has gone through the first few weeks of this season, Blair has become even more aware of all the steps he has taken on his journey – and of all the people who have gone along on the ride with him.
“I think a lot of times people don’t realize how many people around you have helped you get where you are,” he said. “One thing I am super grateful for is the supporting cast I’ve had throughout my journey. The people who were the closest to me – my family, my girlfriend, my friends – they were all supporting me.
“There could have been many times when they could have said, ‘Hey you need to stop …this isn’t worth doing.’ That never happened. No one ever said that to me. They were always supporting me and believed in me. That’s a huge reason why I’m where I am right now.”
Blair also believes he has being assisted by another source.
“I don’t really have any way to describe it, but I just always feel like there’s been a higher power that’s guided me throughout this entire process,” he said. “That’s kind of given me the strength to have the belief that keeps you doing things in the face of adversity.
“When other worldly thoughts want to derail you from becoming who you want to become for some reason, I’ve found the strength to try to keep going. It’s definitely felt like there was a higher power on my side.”
Hultzen and Pacheco both use the word “when” instead of “if” about Blair finally being able to realize his dreams of making it to the majors.
They both know that had Blair stopped at any point during the last seven years, there would have always been a feeling of regret – that he didn’t work hard enough, that he gave up too soon.
“If,” as in, ”what if I had done this, or what if I had done that,” is a powerful word, Hultzen said.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about at length is the knowledge that you did everything within your absolute worldly power to achieve your dream,” Hultzen said. “You can live with the results. We want the results to be pitching in the big leagues … When he makes it, it will be one of the most special moments in my life. I think everybody feels that way who has been around Seth.”
Pacheco certainly shares that opinion.
“Everybody has a different journey, especially to get to the big leagues,” he said. “You never know what the game can bring if you just keep going … He’s doing it for himself, but also to show his son that you don’t give up on things and you don’t quit because some things don’t go your way. That’s a testament to who he is as a person.
“Selfishly I would be ecstatic when it happens. I know all the work he’s put in. I will probably cry a little bit for sure.”
Blair might be even happier for all of the people around him than he will be for himself when – not if – that day comes.
“There were probably people saying that I shouldn’t do it, but I didn’t really know who those people were,” he said. ”Maybe the people closest to me felt that way, but they just didn’t say it to me. I never felt like I had haters. I just felt I had a bunch of people supporting me, always trying to lift me up … The appreciation that I will have will be on another level.
“It’s definitely been an interesting journey.”
Durham Bulls photos by Paxton Rembis; Springfield photo by Mark Harrell; Red Sox photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports; other photos courtesy of Seth Blair
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains