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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2001

Sylvania native's height holds veteran pitcher from majors

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The numbers are all against Rick Blanc's advancing in organized baseball.

Well, technically, that first sentence should read the number is against Blanc, because there's only one number that stops him from realizing his dream of pitching for an affiliated professional baseball team.

Certainly the pitching numbers the Sylvania native posted for the Chillicothe Paints in the Frontier League are not holding him back. He tied the league record with 13 wins, struck out 95 batters in 119 innings - both among the league leaders - and walked only 26 in leading the Paints to an East Division title.

Blanc was named the league's pitcher of the year.

The figures that keep him from signing with a major-league team is the one in his bio listed next to the word “height.”

“The last year I was measured at Bowling Green I was 5-111/4,” said Blanc, a righthander. “That's the last official measuring I had. And put that 1/4 in too, because that means a lot.”

It doesn't seem to mean much to professional scouts. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, a professional baseball consultant said nine major-league clubs tell their scouts not to bother even scouting right-handed pitchers who aren't at least 6-2, and Blanc believes it. “I've had two or three (scouts) tell me I could pitch at Triple-A right now and be successful,” he said. “They just can't convince their (superiors) to give me a shot because of my size.

“It's frustrating, but it gives me encouragement too. I think in the back of my mind that maybe somebody will give me a shot sometime, and it keeps me going. It could bring me down, but I don't let it. I just go out and do what I can do, go out there every day and try to prove people wrong.”

That's what Blanc has been doing since he graduated from Southview High in 1994. His best college offer came from a Division III school, Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Ga., so he made the 14-hour move south.

He threw a no-hitter in his freshman season at SCAD, striking out 80 in 692/3 innings - including 16 in his final appearance. Blanc posted a 5-5 record with a 2.61 ERA as a freshman, and the next season he fanned 84 in 84 innings and had an 8-3 record with a 2.25 ERA.

“But I was told by professional scouts that if I wanted to be seen, I needed to go to a Division I school,” Blanc said. “That was the only reason I left (SCAD). I wanted to get to a Division I school and show what I could do against better hitters.”

So Blanc transferred to Bowling Green, where in two seasons he struck out 64 in 821/3 innings but didn't have a season ERA under 5.68. Blanc said the move from Division III to Division I is the biggest step up the ladder he took during his baseball career. “Division III ball to Division I is a totally different world,” he said. “Everyone is two steps better, and (Division I) is more baseball-oriented.

“In Division III you've got a lot of guys who are there for academics and they play baseball just to play baseball. In Division I players go to play baseball - yeah, they're also there to get an education, but they're on scholarship and playing baseball is their job. And 100 percent of those guys have a chance to get to the next level.”

Blanc said it was at Bowling Green that he began to develop into a “pitcher.” “I was throwing 85 (mph), and in Division III you're going to blow it by everybody (at that speed),” he said. “In Division I you're not going to do that because everyone throws 85 or higher. So you have to learn to become a pitcher, and that's what I had to do. I had to start hitting my spots because if I didn't, they were going to hit it someplace. And I developed more pitches and fine-tuned them.”

But Blanc's ERA with the Falcons, combined with his lack of height, caused him to be passed over in the 1998 draft. So he began to look for an independent league team he could pitch for. He set up tryouts with two teams in the Frontier League, Kalamazoo and Chillicothe.

“I went to Kalamazoo first and they told me basically what I've heard my whole life: You're too small, you don't throw hard enough, blah, blah, blah,” Blanc said. “So the next day I went to Chillicothe, and Roger Hanners gave me my break in professional baseball.”

Hanners, the Paints' director of baseball operations, had the same first impression of Blanc most baseball people have. “I noticed he was awfully small,” Hanners admitted. “He seemed to have the intelligence, but I wasn't sure he had the power to win in our league. But we sure found out soon enough. He has the power to win here.”

Hanners offered Blanc a contract, and Blanc's professional career began in that summer of `98. Blanc still laughs at the lack of respect he got from the team when he first joined them. “I wore No. 9 all through college - I started with it when I was nine years old, and that's the number I've always had,” he explained. “When I got to Chillicothe, the batboy had No. 9. I'm not a very loud person, so I didn't ask for it and instead they gave me jersey No. 13.”

Blanc let his arm do the talking. He began as a long reliever, but by the end of the season he became the Paints' closer and finished with seven saves to go along with a 1-1 record and 2.97 ERA.

Blanc moved to Sioux Falls, S.D., in the Northern League in 1999 and did the same thing, finishing the season as the team's closer and posting five saves with a 2.93 ERA. The next season he began the year with Yuma, Ariz., in the Western League, but quickly rejoined the Paints and became a starter, finishing with a 5-3 record and 5.12 ERA.

This past season he had offers to pitch elsewhere, but Blanc, who turned 26 soon after the season ended, committed to spending the entire season with Chillicothe. “I went back because I wanted to see what I could do for the first time starting for the entire year. I did have an opportunity to go to Mexico, but I turned it down.”

After taking the loss on Opening Day, getting roughed up in a 15-0 pounding, he didn't lose again during the regular season, setting a Frontier League record with 13 straight winning decisions. Blanc used a cut fastball as his “out” pitch to go along with a fastball and change-up.

“My best pitch is my cut fastball,” Blanc said. “It was taught to me by Galen Cisco (a former pitching coach for the Phillies and Blue Jays), and ever since he taught it to me it has been my bread-and-butter pitch. It was just a matter of developing my change-up from there, and this year my change-up was better than it has ever been. I think I finally found my (arm) slot for it. With those two pitches I felt I could get anybody out at any time just by throwing it where I wanted to.”

But while his repertoire wasn't much different than it was in college, Blanc said he was a much different pitcher. “I'm a totally different pitcher from game one of this year (to now). I was a different pitcher from my first start to my third start. I went out in that first game and got hit hard. I was throwing 88 (mph), 89, 90, 91 - I was throwing just as hard as I could. I was hitting spots, but I was missing spots by an inch here, an inch there. And baseball is a game of inches; if I miss my spot by an inch, on the barrel of a bat it goes from a fly out to a home run.

“I went out for my third game and my manager (Jamie Keefe) yelled at me. He said, `Do you want to win this game? Then throw strikes.' So I started lobbing it in there. That's what it felt like I was doing. I was throwing it 85, 86, lobbing it in there; I felt as if I was throwing batting practice. But I was hitting the exact spot every time, and that was the biggest difference.”

Blanc became the team's ace, winning eight games after a Paints' loss and striking out five times as many batters as he walked. For his efforts he was named the Brian Tollberg Frontier League pitcher of the year, an award named for the former Chillicothe pitcher who now starts for the San Diego Padres.

Even Hanners admits he was surprised that Blanc finished with 13 victories. “But that's because you don't see 13-1 from anybody,” Hanners said. “In our league it's so tough because there's only 84 games and you're only starting every fifth day. If you can win 10 games you've had a very good year.”

Blanc did that and more. But will his fine season result in a chance to follow Tollberg into affiliated baseball? “I did get a lot of looks, but [scouts] have that certain box you have to fit in,” Blanc said. “I'm not 6-foot tall, and I don't throw 95, but I do know how to pitch. That's the shame in baseball today. If you look at baseball's best pitchers right now, you've got Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Roy Oswalt, Billy Wagner - they're not 6-foot tall. But it's something I'll have to deal with. Hopefully this year somebody will take a chance on somebody who's going to throw strikes and put the ball where he wants to put it.”

A baseball scout who wished to remain nameless doesn't expect that to happen. “The things [Blanc] has working against him are his size and the fact that he has no projection of getting better,” the scout said. “Teams already have a lot of money invested in their players, and teams want to go with the guys who have paid their dues pitching at the lower levels.”

Blanc doesn't spend much time worrying about his height and the opportunity it may have cost him. “When people ask me about it, I think about it,” he said. “But I kind of like it because the odds are against you - or at least that's what people think. I don't think that way, because I think I'm just as good as Roger Clemens. I think (my size) is an advantage for me. Guys see a little guy (on the mound) and think, `He can't be that good.' It's just something to get past and work against.”

During this off-season Blanc serves as the pitching coach at Adrian College as well as working with the pitchers at his alma mater, Southview. He also works for Premier Scouting Service, putting together videos for athletes to send to colleges recruiting them.

But if Blanc could wish for the perfect baseball situation in 2002, what would he wish for?

“Anybody who's playing in independent ball wants to be picked up by an affiliated team, that why we keep playing, besides for the love of the game. In a perfect world I want to be somewhere in affiliated ball next spring, preferably at the Double-A level, just pitching and having fun.

“But I'd have to have a lot of wishes come true.”



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