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Tampa Bay Rays' Hank Blalock returns to Texas to face his former team

Hank Blalock, hitting a grand slam against the Astros in 2004, lost his third-base spot in Texas to friend Michael Young.

Associated Press

Hank Blalock, hitting a grand slam against the Astros in 2004, lost his third-base spot in Texas to friend Michael Young.

ARLINGTON, Texas — It's going to be different; that much Hank Blalock knows. But he really can't imagine what it's going to be like to walk into the Ballpark in Arlington this afternoon as a visitor after spending the last eight years starring for the hometown Rangers.

"The first word that enters my mind when I think about it is curious," Blalock said. "I'm curious on what it's going to be like. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of back-and-forth emotions and weird feelings."

To get a sense, think of (or think ahead to) Carl Crawford.

Blalock started with the Rangers the same time Crawford joined the Rays — both were 1999 draft picks, and Blalock began playing in the big leagues first, making the opening day roster in 2002 (though he was later sent down), while Crawford was a July call-up.

Further, Blalock, 29, was a two-time All-Star for Texas, he started seven straight opening days at third base, his name appears in several franchise top-10 stat lists, including homers (152) and RBIs (535), and a clip of his 2003 All-Star Game homer is played nightly as part of the pregame presentation of great moments in franchise history.

"It's going to be strange seeing him in a different uniform," longtime Texas teammate Michael Young said. "I played with him eight years, and we went through a lot together. You play next to each other for that long a period of time and you build up a lot of loyalty to him. I've got nothing to say but great things about Hank. I'm happy it's worked out for him. I'm happy he's landed with a good team. And I hope this ends up being a good role."

Thing is, Blalock never really wanted to leave.

"I look back at my time with the Rangers as all positive," he said. "That was the organization that drafted me, and to go from 1999 to 2009, I'm on a very short list of guys that make it that far.

"I don't know what the percentage is, it's got to be less than 5 percent, of guys that get drafted and finish their whole careers with one organization, like a Chipper Jones type.

"When I got drafted and made it to the big leagues and started playing with the Rangers, I wanted to be that guy. One of the guys with just the same team on the back of their baseball card 20 times. But it didn't happen, and that's okay. I'm in another great organization now."

The Rangers had their reasons, and certainly Blalock's injury issues (he played only 123 games in 2007-08) and decreased production (25 homers last year, but a .234 average and .277 on-base percentage) were factors, as well as their efforts to become more defense-oriented.

And he had an idea the end was near when they moved Young— his closest friend on the team — to third base before the 2009 season and told him when picking up his $6.2 million option that he would be used primarily at designated hitter.

But what stands out to Blalock is that no one from general manager Jon Daniels' management team ever said goodbye.

"I would have liked for it to be told directly to me," he said. "However, everyone handles things differently, and you just have to move on to whatever's next in your life when stuff like that happens."

That odyssey didn't go well either, as Blalock was left on the free agent market until agreeing to a minor-league deal with the Rays in early March. He spent the first six weeks of the season at Triple-A Durham — his first non-rehab stint in the minors since 2002 — before getting called up, and he has since played in 12 games for the Rays, hitting .235.

Amid all the unfamiliarity this weekend, such as going to the visitors clubhouse for the first time since a 1999 orientation program and coming out of the third-base dugout, there will be large doses of nostalgia, of old friends, familiar faces and good stories.

But Blalock insists he won't spend a lot of time looking back.

"I've always tried to force myself to remain in the present, and with that being said, I'm a Tampa Bay Ray," Blalock said. "I'm a former Ranger."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Tampa Bay Rays' Hank Blalock returns to Texas to face his former team 06/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 8:29am]

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