CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was the summer of 1964. I had just moved to the eastern end of the Kanawha Valley from a coal camp in McDowell County, which was not an easy transition for a 9-year-old boy.I left my elementary school, my Thorpe Little League team and a coach in the late Claude Oliver that I loved, the only home area I had ever known and many friends and cousins.The move to Charleston would prove to be a good one, but that first summer was fairly lonely.One night my father, the late Dennis Giardina, and I discovered minor league baseball at Watt Powell Park. It was Class AA ball in 1964, home of the Charleston Indians of the Eastern League. Little did I know that the Indians would leave that summer and professional baseball would not return here until the Charleston Charlies arrived in 1971.
At that time, there was also a miniature golf course and a dozen or so "in ground" trampolines outside the left-field wall of Watt Powell. An evening of jumping on a trampoline and watching baseball was welcome refreshment for a lonely kid.My dad was also lonely, and we both went to the ballpark as much to talk with people and meet people as we did to watch baseball. We always tried to sit near the visiting dugout as my father liked to listen to the fans agitate the opposing managers. Truth be told, he liked to needle them himself.
One night the Indians were playing the Baltimore Orioles AA team from Elmira, N.Y. That night my father joined with other fans in calling the Elmira manager a "crybaby" after he was ejected kicking and screaming while arguing a call. That "crybaby" turned out be Hall of Famer manager Earl Weaver. Later that night, something magical happened for me. Elmira won the game, but after catching the third strike for the last out, the Elmira catcher come over to his dugout and motioned for me to come down to the fence. As I did so, he reached over the fence and gave me the baseball. That catcher turned out to be Andy Etchebarren who two years later would be an American League All-Star and help the Orioles win the 1966 World Series. He would be the last batter to ever face the greatest pitcher of my childhood, Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers.The player who stood out the most to me that night was a young outfielder for Elmira, Paul Blair. He was smooth. He didn't run in the outfield, he glided. My father remarked that he had never seen a center fielder play so shallow in the outfield. You could tell Blair was going to be special.Blair would go on to play 17 years in the major leagues and helped Baltimore win the World Series in 1966 and 1970 and also won rings with the Yankees in 1977 and '78. Cincinnati Reds fans may remember Blair hitting .474 in the 1970 Series and could have been named MVP but was overshadowed by Brooks Robinson's defensive brilliance at third base. Blair also hit the game-winning home run off of Claude Osteen in a 1-0 win in pivotal Game 3 in 1966. In Game 4 of that same series he robbed the Dodgers Jim Lefebvre of a game-tying home run.You may have missed it, but Blair died on the day after Christmas at the age of 69. He was 20 years old when I first saw him that summer night at Watt Powell. It was almost 50 years ago, and I still remember his style and grace as if it were yesterday. Reach Frank Giardina at firstname.lastname@example.org.