OAKLAND, 15 June - It’s always at the forefront of his mind and it’s emblazoned on his chest.
‘This too shall pass’ is Travis Blackley’s philosophy and a fitting way to deal with the transience of baseball success.
“I’ve had some ups and downs in my career,” he said. “And definite low points...at times I just felt there was no way out of it and I thought to stick by that - ‘this too shall pass’ - something will come up again tomorrow and just to make of each day what you can”.
A few weeks back, fellow Aussies Rich Thompson and Luke Hughes were called up to the big leagues, where they were greeted by Sydney-born Grant Balfour; Australians everywhere boasted the Oakland ‘A’ was for Aussie. However, the Aussie fever was short-lived as Hughes and Thompson spent only a brief time in the majors, sliding down to Triple-A in a matter of days.
Amid the disappointment it was not widely known that 29-year-old Victorian, Blackley, was quietly waiting in the wings, inking a deal to become the fourth Aussie the A’s carried on their roster this year.
“I know when (Thompson and Hughes) were here they didn’t exactly do poorly,” Blackley said. “They did fine, but it’s just a numbers game and the same thing could happen to me. You just never know. You’ve just got to get that out of your mind and play the game.”
“You can’t take it for granted,” he continued. “Obviously you’ve got to put up numbers to stay. It's a dog-eat-dog world up here and you just want to do what you can for the team, when you can and if you have a bad one, just try and shake it off before your next one and don’t let it compound and get on you.”
Blackley’s attitude developed from a series of blows, including an injury to his left shoulder which forced him out of the game for the best parts of 2005 and 2006. Back then, Blackley wouldn’t have dreamed his peak would actually be now, just before his thirtieth birthday and that he’d have to circle the globe several times to get there.
Confusing many a fan since his 2004 MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners, Blackley has had a whirlwind few years, including two stints with the San Francisco Giants, most recently during this year. During his recent time back in the minors the left-handed reliever was groomed as starter. He made his debut with the A’s on Memorial Day.
“I didn’t do anything different; treated it like I was in the bullpen,” Blackley said of his first start since 2007. “I came out a lot later then I used to. I came out 20 minutes before the game, played catch for 10 of those and that only warmed up, like I would as a reliever for maybe 20 pitches in the pen.
"Right now, I feel like I'm as good as I've been ever in my career so far; my game has come a long way and having that confidence to throw that sinker behind the count and get a ground ball or even throwing an off-speed pitch behind the count.
“It's awesome to when you've got Kurt (Suzuki) behind the plate. I've pitched to him before a limited experience with him and obviously (Anthony) Recker a fair bit. It's having the comfort to trust what they call and go with. If I was really against it I'd shake but I trust but I feel confident they know what they're doing and they're prepared for the game."
When he is in the pen, Blackley shoots the breeze with fellow Aussie “rugby man” Grant Balfour.
“We pretty much just talk about the hitters,” Blackley said. “If anything comes up, we turn it into Aussie mode and the others love it and scratch their heads. We just have a bit of fun in there and try and keep it nice and loose.”
The A’s treat the Aussies just like the other players.
"There are no Tim Tams in the locker room,” Blackley said. “They're not really my thing anyway, but if there were sausage rolls and meat pies, well that’d be a different story.”
Blackley first tasted the American green and gold in 2010 with the A’s Triple-A affiliate Sacramento River Cats, and his prior experience cushioned the transition.
“The A’s, they know how I played and the kind of person I was so there weren’t any surprises because they knew what I was like,” he said. “[I’m a] happy-go-lucky, easy going guy, but I put my nose down and my bum in the air when I need to work and that’s what they knew they were getting.
“I enjoyed my time with the Giants and I’m enjoying being with the A’s,” Blackley continued, of returning to the Bay area. “They are very similar organisations, quite laid back and [they] let you be you. That’s always been a pretty big thing for me to be able to be myself and that’s how I’m going to compete at my best, just being me.”
Off the field, Blackley enjoys the simple pleasures.
“I love a good feed, I love my Call of Duty and my heavy metal,” he said.
Returning to Australia in 2010 was an important move for the man who just had his Australian tattoo redone. Back at home he teamed up with his brother Adam for the first season of the newly-revived Australian Baseball League.
Making his debut on 5 December with the Melbourne Aces, Blackley not only enjoyed a summer with his family but put up some strong numbers.
The summer playing Australian baseball season pre-empted a solid stint in the Korean Baseball Organization in 2011, where in 25 appearances Blackley racked up seven wins, concluding the season with an ERA of 3.48.
“Anytime you go to Korea or Japan or anywhere in Asia and put up good numbers, you know it’s such a different style in that they make you throw a lot more pitches,” he said. “And I think if you get through that it helps you grow as a pitcher. I definitely felt like I had come a long way over that season and made it a lot easier to make a run at a big-league job this year.”
In addition to improving his game, Blackley’s experience with the KIA Tigers was a huge departure from anything he’d seen in the American and Australian leagues, most notably with the inclusion of a fifth-inning smoke break.
“It’s quite funny actually,” he said. “The game will stop, they’ll rake the field and the dugouts, clear out and you go inside. And it’s just the team in there puffing away on heaters, just trying to get in as many smokes as they can before they have to head back out.”
Following Korea, Blackley began his second season with the ABL with the Melbourne Aces. Improving on his debut, during his 2011-12 campaign, Blackley pitched strongly in eight games for the Aces, going 1-0 with a 3.55 ERA, one save, and 18 strikeouts in 12.2 innings pitched. It culminated with the Aces taking on the Perth Heat in the finals in February, televised across the world.
“I was having a little trouble finding a job and I had one offer in the works...but pitching on TV which was broadcast to the States probably helped them see that I was healthy, was throwing strikes and that my pitch was working well,” he said. “The exposure definitely helped me.”
Blackley is now returning the favour, singing the praises of the ABL to American teammates.
“A lot guys immediately want to go and then they want to know how much we get paid and if it’s like winter ball in the Caribbean and I tell them, ‘If you want to go check out a country and play a bit of baseball it's for you.’...A lot of them are keen to go over there and see Australia. So I’m trying to talk a few guys in to it.”
A return to the Aces may be in the cards for the upcoming season but of course, it is too early for Blackley to tell.
"Whether or not I play will depend on how much I pitch here,” he said. “I enjoyed my time there last year and I felt like it was a really good brush up for my spring training, so if the A's are OK with it and they have me in their plans for next year and they're fine with me getting a few innings in, then I'll be definitely down for that."
Blackley will be the first to say his destination is anything but final; with the Aussies dropping like flies, he couldn't be happier about where he is right now.
"Oh, believe it,” he said. “You have your dream of being in the big leagues and I realised it at a young age and maybe I took it for granted and it was a struggle to get back. I'm just enjoying every moment of it and doing everything I can to stay up here. I guess we'll see what happens."