MLB All-Star Paul Blackburn of Athletics took long road to success

The first time freshman Paul Blackburn took the mound for baseball tryouts at Heritage High, he stood atop the rubber rather than straddling it with his right foot to get the proper leverage.

Kevin Brannan, who coached Blackburn all four years at the Brentwood school, chuckled at the memory.

“I asked him why and he told me that’s what he’s always done,” Brannan said. “Other than putting him out in front of the rubber, we pretty much let the kid do what he was born to do — and that is throwing a baseball for strikes. I’d be lying if I told you I had a lot to do with it.”

Blackburn, 28, has gone from the top of the rubber to the top of the baseball world as the Athletics’ selection in the 2022 All-Star Game Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. For anyone who saw Blackburn work his magic from youth sports through high school in the East County, it seemed inevitable.

Yet the baseball ecosystem is littered with prodigies who find their gifts don’t translate once they’re faced with athletes who dominated their own ponds and suddenly are swimming with sharks. In late February of 2021, Blackburn was given the three letters no professional baseball player wants to hear — DFA.

In baseball, being “designated for assignment” basically means the organization doesn’t see you as part of the future. Players who are DFA’d go through waivers where they can be signed by any team. If they go unclaimed, they can return to their original team but they’re basically starting at the bottom and don’t have a spot on the roster.

“It’s essentially like being fired,” Blackburn said. “You get DFA’d and it’s like ‘We don’t really want you anymore.’  Just being able to look past that and find the confidence in myself to push through is what helped me get to where I am right now.”

Where Blackburn is right now is an All-Star. It will be on his baseball card forever. He’s lost his last two starts, is 6-5 with a 3.62 earned run average and MLB rules mandate one selection per team. He gave up five runs in the first inning to Texas Tuesday night — with an uncharacteristic three walks and a bloop single providing the last two runs.

Then Blackburn made a statement of sorts, retiring 15 of 16 batters and giving up no hits in the following five innings. The game mirrored a career during which Blackburn doesn’t look like a major leaguer let alone an All-Star — and then flips the script and is once again the performer he was through high school. Blackburn called the outing “unacceptable” but took solace in getting back on track.

“There are ups and downs in this game and my main focus is going to be turning around for the second half,” Blackburn told reporters. “To keep on working, try to keep repeating what I can consistently and get back to work.”

Blackburn got back to work after being DFA’d. He got back to work after a broken right wrist, taking a liner off the bat of Trey Mancini in in 2017. He got back to work after a forearm and elbow injury in 2018, But Blackburn’s ascent in the A’s organization slowed to the point where in 2020 he made just one start and gave up seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings against Seattle.

Would Blackburn, whose velocity in the low 90s has remained consistent since high school, ever get the kind of extended opportunity that comes for pitchers who throw in the mid- to high-90s? It was never a sure thing, and Blackburn set about trying to “synch” his upper body with his lower body.

The hard times were difficult to watch for Brandon Bascom, a close friend of Blackburn’s from the time they were next-door neighbors in the second grade in Oakley.

“He literally dominated every sport he played,” Bascom said. “You see him struggling, and you know what he’s capable of. To us, his friends and family, we all hoped he would get it together. We all know what he can do, even if no one else does. We’ve seen it.”

Blackburn succeeded by rediscovering and refining his mechanics and doing what he did in high school.  Attacking the zone. Letting his defense do the work.

As a rail-thin freshman at Heritage, Blackburn would run pitch counts up to nearly 100 and not make it through the fifth inning. Bascom, meanwhile, was working into the seventh and Blackburn wanted to know why.

“I told him if you want to fix that, quit worrying about striking everybody out,” Brannan said. “From that point on, he was throwing any pitch on any count, getting first-pitch outs on changeups and curves, and finishing games on 80 pitches.”

Blackburn got the attention of pro and college scouts as a junior, when he beat Bishop O’Dowd’s Joe Ross 2-1 in a win for Heritage. Ross, a senior, was a first-round draft pick by the San Diego Padres after that season. As a senior, Blackburn was 10-3 and the East Bay Pitcher of the Year with 100 strikeouts and an opponent’s batting average of .159. including a no-hitter against Deer Valley. He also played shortstop and was Heritage’s top hitter.

Having played basketball through his junior year and thriving at any sporting endeavor, it all made sense.

“On the golf course he can drive the ball 300 yards and hit 200-yard 7-irons,” Bascom said. “We had a bowling class our senior year and he’s out there damn near throwing perfect games every morning. It doesn’t matter what sport, Paul’s going to dominate.”

In the 2012 MLB Draft, Blackburn was a compensatory first-round pick, No. 56 overall, by the Chicago Cubs. He signed for more than $900,000 and bypassed a scholarship offer to Arizona State. Bascom joined the Army and when stationed in North Carolina, visited with Blackburn, who was a Cubs minor leaguer in Myrtle Beach. It was clear Blackburn wasn’t resting on his athletic skill.

Heritage High School starting pitcher Paul Blackburn fires a pitch to the plate aganist a Monte Vista High School batter during action in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 (Jim Stevens/Staff)
No one has worn the No. 24 at Heritage High since Paul Blackburn graduated and was drafted by the Cubs after the 2012 season. Jim Stevens/Staff file

“As soon as he left the park, he’d be researching his next opponent,” Bascom said.

With a basketball court and a batting cage in the backyard of his home in Oakley, Blackburn was constantly working to get better and gently prodding teammates to do the same.

“We’d be at it all day, playing, practicing, and get home at 7 or 7:30 and I’d look outside and Paul would be playing catch with his dad,” Bascom said. “I’m thinking, ‘This guy will never stop.’ ”

Traded from Chicago to Seattle and then from Seattle to Oakland in 2016, Blackburn could at least reason he was wanted. The DFA was another story, and Brannan said he and Blackburn traded some frank text messages.

“He was talking about selling houses or doing something else,” Brannan said. “I said, ‘You’ve got the rest of your life to work for a living. You don’t want to throw in the towel because a few people don’t believe in you. You’re not a guy throwing 95 and throwing it by people. Just be what you’ve been your whole life and you just have to understand that’s good enough.’ ”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JULY 13: Paul Blackburn #58 of the Oakland Athletics throws a pitch in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field on July 13, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
Paul Blackburn delivers in the first inning of a 5-2 loss to the Texas Rangers Tuesday night. Getty Images

Bascom, who became a police officer after leaving the Army, said Blackburn kept quiet about his doubts.

“I’ll put it like this — Paul is one of the hardest people there is to read,” Bascom said. “He doesn’t show a lot of emotion unless he’s very, very angry. He does a good job of hiding it. You could tell it was hard on him, but he did exactly what he needed to do.”

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