DENVER, 8 August - Is there a word Travis Blackley can use to sum up his last year and a half in the tumultuous tidal wave that is professional baseball?
“Ugh,” the Victorian left-hander says in a drawn out sigh.
“That’s not a word, but if I could use that, I would.”
Following a 2011 season in Korea, Blackley signed his second contract with the San Francisco Giants during the 2012 ABL Championship Series on the heels of an impressive season for the Melbourne Aces. Since then, Blackley’s travelogue reads like something authored by Homer. Melbourne to Scottsdale, Arizona for spring training. Scottsdale to Triple-A Fresno for four appearances. Fresno to San Francisco for another four, Blackley’s first at the big league level since 2010. Then, after posting a 9.00 ERA in five innings, the Giants pulled the plug on the southpaw, designating him for assignment with the hope of another assignment back to Fresno. The Oakland Athletics had different ideas.
The A’s claimed Blackley off waivers on 15 May last year, planning on sending him to Triple-A themselves, before the southpaw took control of his destiny.
“To step up in that situation and finally be healthy and doing what I can do at that level,” Blackley says of his strong showing to stay with the big league club in Oakland. “I kept my job, created a job in the rotation for a while, did well at that, beat some big-name pitchers in some tough, hostile environments. Whether or not I’m looked at as a starter or not, it showed that I can rise to the occasion on a big stage and handle big situations.”
Blackley turned himself into one of the most versatile, dependable, and successful arms for the A’s in another dream season by the Bay. The Moneyball-famed franchise, with the second-smallest payroll in baseball, slayed the mighty giants from Anaheim and Texas en route to a surprising division title. On the penultimate day of the season, with the eyes of the baseball world on Oakland, the Victorian kid with his second baseball life, came through in a major way.
“Sometimes I sit back and think about [last year],” says Blackley. “I don’t like to keep myself in the past at all, I like to look to the future. But sometimes I can’t help it. Some of those games that happened last year, like [game] 161 against the Rangers, that’s a game that I think about weekly...it’s just a little refresher of what I can do.”
With his team’s division title hopes on the line, Blackley spun six one-run innings against one of the most potent offences in baseball, outpitching the Rangers’ Matt Harrison while leading his club to a tie for the division lead. One day later, Oakland knocked off Texas again, with fellow Aussie Grant Balfour clinching the final outs on the mound, completing one of the most improbable division title runs in recent baseball history.
“There’s always that one breakout game that helps a guy believe they belong. I kind of believed that I belonged before that, but that really set me in my ways that I don’t belong anywhere but here.”
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
The dream of 2012 gave way to a nightmarish start to 2013. Blackley decided to forego pitching for Australia in the World Baseball Classic-not an easy decision for the 30-yearold who watched games intently from a world away-in order to focus on improving his standing on the A’s staff. Things didn’t go according to plan.
Blackley struggled in seven Cactus League games with the A’s in March, allowing 20 runs and 27 hits in 12.2 innings pitched, adding up to an unsightly 14.21 ERA. With roster spots at a premium, the A’s had to make a tough call at the end of spring training. On 29 March, the A’s bade a difficult farewell to Blackley, whose colourful and gregarious personality had made him an instant fan favourite. That day, Oakland designated the former Cheltenham Rustlers star for assignment, effectively ending his tenure with MLB’s green and gold club. An emotional departure ensued between Blackley and the fanbase that had so thoroughly embraced him.
“The experience aside, that was the most meaningful to me when they did send me here, to see the reaction of the fans,” Blackley says. You can tell that they love you when you’re doing well and everything, but when you’re not doing well in spring training, and they’re still supportive of you and still believe that you’re going to be on the team anyway from what you did the year before. Then when reality hits and you do get sent off somewhere else, to see the way they reacted... I still get people like the right field bleachers there, they still tell me that when I hit the mound, for that one inning or so, they’re not going for the A’s. And that’s cool.”
Six days later, the A’s traded Blackley to Houston to join an Astros team in the midst of a deep rebuilding year. There, the Aces’ ace has become one of Houston’s most demanded arms and most trusted voices on a team looking to find its way.
THE WAY BACK
A lot of players have recovered from injuries and inconsistencies to return to the big leagues from an extended layoff. Fewer have done it after two of them. Fewer still will appreciate it as much as the 30-year-old who has chased his dream to the ends of the earth.
“I’m not a veteran player,” Blackley says with the energy of a player still riding his first major league thrills. “I am in years played [professionally], but not in the major leagues. I think there’s only one guy on this actual roster, maybe two, that got to the major leagues before I did. But some of those guys have got double, triple the time I’ve got anyway.”
After breaking into the bigs with the Mariners in 2004, Blackley didn’t see a major league mound again until he made two appearances for the Giants in 2007. Then, it was another five-year grind to make it back to the bright lights of the big stage. Despite his comparative lack of major league service time to some of his colleagues, Blackley’s hard-fought road to where he is now speaks volumes to a young team like the Astros.
“I’ve had to go the hard way and learn a lot during that time. Being a part of that [A’s] team last year, I was more one of the followers last year. They had team leaders that set the pace, and I got to see what they did.
“I know what it takes to do what we have to do.”
This story is part one in a two-part story. Next time, Travis reflects on his time in the ABL and how that helped get his MLB career back on track.