Johnson County Native Willie Blair: Looking back at his career

In this photo Detroit’s Willie Blair talks to his catcher and pitching coach during action.

Every little boy who has ever grown up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky has pretended to be their favorite baseball star during a backyard wiffle ball game. We all dream of playing in a packed out stadium, fans cheering our names as we step to the plate. That is a dream many kids have, but for most it is just that — a dream.

However, there’s that one in a million that has their name called. That one that makes it out of the mountains to the game’s biggest stage. One mountain boy who heard his name called was Willie Blair. Blair, from West Van Lear, attended high school and played sports at Johnson Central. He was a mutli-sport athlete, but especially excelled on the baseball diamond for the Golden Eagles.

He played for legendary coach Mike Collins while at Johnson Central. Collins played in the professional ranks in his own right and taught Blair the knowledge to help him reach the next level.

“Coach Collins played a big part in me going to Morehead,” Blair said. “As you know, kids in Eastern Kentucky in baseball and sports in general don’t get recruited like some of the other parts of the state, so I hadn’t been recruited that much. Coach Collins had been talking to Coach (Steve) Hamilton from Morehead, and invited him down to see me.”  

The New York Yankees would also hold a camp in which Blair attended and his high school coach made sure coach Hamilton at Morehead did as well.

“You know, without coach Collins, I probably would not have been able to go to Morehead,” Blair said. “He’s the one who told him (Hamilton) about me and kept on him until he came to see me.”

After his four years as a Golden Eagle, Blair became another type of Eagle. This time, the Morehead State variety. Blair would then play for another legendary coach, Steve Hamilton. Hamilton, who, had an 11-year major league pitching career, was also a Morehead State alumnus. He was a star athlete and won OVC championships in baseball, basketball and track during his playing days for the Eagles. He is the only person to play in the NCAA Basketball Championships (Morehead State), a World Series (New York Yankees) and an NBA Championship Series (Minneapolis Lakers). Along with coaching baseball, he was athletics director for 20 years until his death in 1997.

Blair excelled at Morehead as well under Hamilton’s leadership.

“I learned a lot from coach Hamilton, too,” Blair said. “His experience as a major league pitcher really helped me,” Blair said. “The mental side and the competition side of it, had a huge impact on my career.”

He also played two summers of American Legion baseball, one after his freshman season at Morehead State. Blair once again, would be under the guidance of two wonderful well known coaches in baseball circles. Don Hardin was his head coach, along with pitching coach Doc Magrane, father of former St. Louis Cardinal and then-California Angel Joe Magrane.

“The way he (Don) ran his program, we had Monday’s and Thursday’s off and we played every other day,” Blair said. “So, it was just like playing pro ball. I think we ended up playing like 70 games or so. I was very fortunate to play summer ball in Morehead and for those guys, and I learned a great deal from them.”

Blair spent three seasons at Morehead State when major league scouts began to take notice. He was selected in the 11th round of the 1986 major league draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. Once picked by the Blue Jays, Blair then had to fly from Huntington, West Virginia, to Toronto, Canada, to finalize his contract. “I remember getting on the airplane. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I had never been on one before. Johnnie Lemaster went with me to help negotiate my contract,” Blair said. He spent four years in the Blue Jays minor league system, first with the St. Catharines Blue Jays in 1986. In the 1986-’87 season he would play for the Dunedin Blue Jays. In 1988, he would get the chance to move somewhat closer to home as he spent a season with the Knoxville Smokies. His last season in the minor league system would be with the Syracuse Chiefs in 1989.

On April 11th 1990, Blair made his major league debut for Toronto against the Texas Rangers.

“Well, I was a reliever at that time, so I didn’t know when I was going to pitch,” Blair said. “I knew I hadn’t pitched the first few games, so I knew there was probably a chance me getting in one of those games. I really didn’t know until they called down and said Blair’s in the game. It was a tremendous experience, I believe I had two strikeouts in the first inning. I think I gave up a run in the next inning. I pitched two innings and had three punch outs,” Blair said. Blair said one thing he remembers well about his debut were his legs shaking. “I don’t know if anyone could see it, but I remember my legs shaking out there on the mound.”

Blair said he always pitched with a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove to everyone that he belonged in the big leagues, and he tried to out work the next guy to show what he could do if given the chance.

“I was taught to compete hard and not to be intimidated by anybody and that’s the mentality that was instilled in me from a young age,” said Blair.

In the offseason of his first year, Blair would be traded to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Alex Sanchez. Blair described his time in Cleveland as rough, as at that time the Indians were rebuilding and a very young team. It was a learning experience none the less, as it taught the young pitcher how to deal with adversity.

His stay in Cleveland would be brief, as the next season he was then traded along with Eddie Taubensee to the Houston Astros which included Kenny Lofton. The stay in Houston would also be short, as he would then be picked up by the Colorado Rockies in the 1993 expansion draft.

“The first game, we had over 80,000 people in the stands,” Blair said. “The fans were incredible in Colorado. They broke all of the attendance records,” Blair said. It was not an ideal place for pitchers, however. Due to altitude and lack of humidity, Blair found it tough to make his pitches do what he wanted them to do.

He would move again the next season. This time it would be to sunny San Diego and the Padres. He would play the 1995-1996 season there, before heading back East for what was Blair’s first stint with the Detroit Tiger’s in 1997. That season would also be Blair’s best in the big leagues. He would finish the year 16-8 on the mound good for a 4.17 ERA. That season also came with tragedy as well. Julio Franco would hit a line drive shot back at Blair which broke his jaw. The pitch is reported to have came in at 92 mph and left Franco’s bat at 107 mph. Blair would return to the game in miraculous time. After just two rehab starts, he would return to the bigs exactly one month and one day from the accident. The toughness taught to him as a kid would shine through more than ever. He would be picked up in the Arizona Diamondbacks expansion draft in 1998, but would finish the year with the New York Mets. He returned to the Tigers the following year where he was given the honor of pitching the last opening day game in the old Tiger Stadium in 1999.

Blair finished his playing career in 2001. After returning home to spend time with his mother who was fighting cancer, he got back into baseball. In 2011-12 he was named pitching coach for the Fort Wayne Tin Caps. However, in December of 2012, he was named bullpen coach of the San Diego Padres, replacing Jimmy Jones. He then got into coaching at Lexington Christian where he was an assistant and junior varsity coach, but the pros would call once again. He is now the pitching coach for the West Michigan White Caps, single A team of the Tigers.

Blair and Trina, his wife of 29 years, have three children. His daughter Paige, is a special education teacher in Lexington. Their two sons, Taylor and Jaxon, both played baseball at Eastern Kentucky University, playing one year together.

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