ST. PETERSBURG — Say this for Hank Blalock. When the ball left his bat, the guy remembered what to do.
This is how it used to look, Blalock standing in the middle of the key moment, driving in a run to give his team a fresh chance. This is how it used to feel, the nerve endings standing up in the electricity of a big hit. This is how it was to be Hank Blalock, back when he was a big deal in the big leagues.
He stood at first, clapping his hands sharply, allowing himself a small smile.
It was in the bottom of the eighth inning Monday night when Blalock's rebirth began. That was when he hit the sinking liner to center that dipped just below Trevor Crowe's glove and fell in to tie the score at 3. That was when Blalock's comeback inched forward by 90 feet and one RBI.
For the moment, if only that, Blalock was back.
For the moment, he was an impact player again.
"To be able to come up and get a hit like that was definitely exciting for me," he said. "I think every hitter in the league would get excited there. Yeah, it felt great."
Once, he was a feared hitter and twice, he was an all-star. In those days, he could hit for power, and he could spray the ball around the field, and everyone seemed to agree that Blalock was a very, very good baseball player. Baseball America once ranked him the third-best prospect in the game.
That was a long time ago, however, before bad habits turned Blalock into a one-dimensional hitter, before he spent an offseason waiting for the phone to ring, before the Rays offered him a last chance and a ticket to Triple A.
Now, Blalock has made it back to the bigs for a second shot at success. From here, we will see where his career goes.
"I believe I can be an impact player in the major leagues," Blalock said. "This is only the first part of it, making it back. The big part is showing that I can play well enough to help this team win.
"Do I have some things to prove? Yes. In professional sports, I think you're proving yourself all the time."
What are the odds the Rays and Blalock end up rescuing each other? It would be a nice story, right? On the other hand, 29 general managers who didn't call Blalock in the offseason probably wouldn't bet on it happening. Judging by the silence of the phone, those guys were prepared for baseball to go on without Blalock.
Even now, Blalock isn't sure why no one called. True, his on-base percentage dipped to a career-low .277 for Texas in 2009, but he did hit 25 home runs. Given his age (29) and his history, shouldn't someone have been interested?
"I can't put my finger on it," he said. "My father and I talked a lot about it. All I can guess is that people looked at me as a guy with a .277 on-baseball percentage instead of what I had done throughout my career."
As it turns out, the Rays were interested. Already, they were concerned that designated hitter Pat Burrell might not hold up, and they wanted someone in the wings. So they signed Blalock for insurance with the idea of stowing him away at Durham until the time came.
The problem? Blalock didn't want to go to Durham. After all, major-league players are proud of being major-league players. No one wants to revisit the minors. No one wants to go down, because that's an admission that your career is headed the same way.
So Blalock balked. He said he had better things to do with his life than play minor-league baseball. Upon further reflection, however, he decided he didn't. So he swallowed his ego, and he went to Triple A, because going there was his best bet at coming back. If he wanted to be a ballplayer, there was no choice.
"Absolutely, it was a jolt to ego," Blalock admits. "I think everyone in professional sports has a big ego. That's why you're an athlete. That's one of the reasons why you're successful. I think when you find things out initially, your ego gets in the way and you don't make logical decisions. I wasn't going to go. I think that was an impulsive reaction to the situation.
"I slept on it, and the next day I said, 'I'm crazy. If people think I need to re-establish myself, that's what I need to do.' It doesn't matter the caliber of player I think myself to be. You have to prove it to the people who are in charge. The general managers in charge … they determine who the major leaguers are. You might not be one at that time, and you have to get yourself back to being one."
It is one of the best sports stories, a lost-and-forgotten player battling back to reclaim what has been lost. Maybe others would have gone home. After all, Blalock's wife Misty is pregnant with the couple's third child. Maybe others would have big-timed the kids. But Blalock made a point to show a good attitude to the others in Durham. It's hardly a surprise that a hitter of Blalock's ability hit .349 in Triple A, but along the way, Blalock worked on proving that he can again be a hitter who uses all fields.
Can he make it back to where he was?
"I think I can be that same guy," Blalock said. "But that was a long time ago. I have a lot of work to do."
"Yes, he can," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He has plenty of bat speed, and he has a great work ethic."
Is Blalock a guarantee? Of course not. He has upside, but must show he still possesses something that most GMs missed.
Still, given his history, given the need for a left-handed bat, it's worth taking a chance. And sometimes, there is no chance quite like the last one.