A recent YES Network article by sportswriter Phil Pepe, who ranked the greatest Yankees defensively at each position over the past half-century, has spurred an offshoot question resulting in some interesting internet debate. Who is the best defensive center fielder of the last 40 years? For me, there can only be one answer, and it’s been the same answer since he retired in 1980—Paul L D Blair. During the 1970s, this man was to catching fly balls what Alex Rodriguez is now to hitting two-out, game-ending home runs at Yankee Stadium.
Now before any San Francisco Giants fans call for the paddy wagon to be sent to Cooperstown, please remember that the question encompasses only the last 40 years. If we expand the question to 50 years (as Pepe did), then I would unquestionably vote for Willie Mays. But I limited the scan to 40 years because that approximates my life span, allowing me to select players based on what I have seen rather than merely relying on statistics. By the late sixties and early seventies, Mays had declined sufficiently to allow center fielders like Blair, Tommie Agee (he of the two great catches in the ’69 World Series), Ken Berry (the Gold Glover, not the actor), Curt Flood (his glove was nearly as pioneering as his labor efforts), and Cesar Geronimo (who had a booming right fielder’s arm) to creep into the argument.
Originally signed by the New York Mets in 1961, Paul Blair began his professional career as a middle infielder. He was incredibly nimble and quick, with enough arm to play shortstop in the minor leagues, but some scouts considered him too small to handle the wear and tear of the middle infield. After their inaugural major league season, the Mets left him unprotected in the 1962 first-year draft. The Orioles swooped in, eventually making the prudent decision to switch him from shortstop to the outfield.
Blair was a bit past his prime by the time he joined the Yankees in 1977 (still very good, though a step slower), but during his Baltimore Orioles heyday he established himself as the absolute standard bearer among center fielders. He played incredibly shallow, allowing him to catch almost any kind of short bloop, yet rarely let a ball get over his head for extra bases. He also had a good throwing arm, strong enough to play right field, which he often did as Reggie Jackson’s caddy in the late 1970s. With his shallow and proper positioning, his flawless jumps, and his oceanic like range, Blair simply had no weakness defensively. I can’t think of a center fielder who was better from the late sixties on, and that includes not only the older group of center fielders mentioned above, but more recent players like Garry Maddox, Gary Pettis, and Devon White, and the contemporary class of Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds.
As much joy as Blair brought to those who appreciated the artistry of brilliant defensive play, he brings other desirable qualities to those who enjoy the game’s history. Blair loves to talk—he wasn’t called "Motormouth" for reasons of irony—and has plenty of opinions on baseball past and present. Last year, Blair visited Cooperstown, ably entertaining fans who had gathered in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater to hear some Hot Stove League banter. Although he played for the Yankees for only four seasons, Blair could write several chapters and multiple verses about his experiences with the Bronx Zoo. The topic of Reggie Jackson, the man whom he often replaced in the late innings, provided a good starting point to the conversation. "The only trouble that Reggie had," Blair informed the Cooperstown crowd, "was before and after games. Not during the games." (Well, with the exception of one infamous Saturday afternoon in Boston during the 1977 season. On that play, Blair defended Billy Martin’s decision to pull Reggie from the game in mid-inning. "You don’t hustle, you don’t play. Billy would have done it with other players.) As Reggie stirred the pot, Blair tried to keep the contents under the lid. "I really became the ambassador and tried to keep peace. If I hadn’t been there, Reggie would have been in fights every day." With other strong personalities like Thurman Munson and Mickey Rivers ready to butt heads with Jackson, well-liked peacemakers like Blair and Fran Healy served an important role as clubhouse coolers.
Temperamental players like Jackson weren’t the only ones who kept Blair on guard; there was a certain manager who had mood swings that would have made a psychiatrist twitch. And while Blair liked the idea of playing for Billy Martin after asking to be traded away from Baltimore, he recognized that his new manager in New York had a full share of quirks. "Billy held grudges," Blair said without hesitation. "If you were in his doghouse, you might as well forget it." Fortunately, Blair managed to remain on Martin’s good side, in large part because of his upbeat personality and willingness to play the unheralded role of outfield caddy.
While Martin and Jackson had a dark side, Blair had nothing but praise for Yankee captain Thurman Munson, whom he likened to one of his most respected teammates in Baltimore. "You have to put Munson in the category of a Frank Robinson," said Blair, recalling his onetime outfield mate with the Orioles. "Thurman was fiery, a leader. Thurman was also a special talent." And much like Blair, Munson was one of those players who could not be fully appreciated unless he was seen on a day-to-day basis, with fans bearing full witness to his extraordinary catching skills and deft baserunning prowess.
In listening to Blair talk so passionately about most subjects, especially fielding and baserunning, I’m saddened that he isn’t working for some major league team in a meaningful capacity. Simply put, someone should hire Blair as an outfield/baserunning coach. He knows a great deal about both subjects and is a good communicator (again justifying the nickname of Motormouth). But Blair himself knows why he isn’t working for a major league team. He’s all too willing to challenge players who don’t play the game properly, confronting them face-to-face, and he doesn’t think that will fly with most organizations. It’s shameful that there is no longer a place in baseball for such honesty—brutal honesty—that is intended to instruct players and reduce the frequency of future mistakes.
Not surprisingly, the outspoken Blair is not a big fan of the way that the outfield is played today. On the one hand, he says that Andruw Jones reminds him of the way he used to play, but also feels that Jones makes far too many fundamental mistakes. If Blair were to work with the Braves, the expletives would fly throughout the outfield at Turner Field.
On a larger scale, Blair thinks that most contemporary outfielders play way too deep (not just center fielders), not only preventing them from making the short catch but also hurting their chances at throwing out runners at the plate. And if you’re like me, and you had the privilege of watching Blair play the outfield the way that he did, you might agree that he’s absolutely right.