Just before Hank Blalock flashed into the public eye at last
week's All-Star Game, Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks had turned to
manager Buck Showalter and said, "Here comes a two-run homer."
Then, watching the TV in the owner's suite at the ballpark of the
Rangers' Double A affiliate in Frisco, Texas, the two men
marveled at Blalock's two-out, two-run home run in the bottom of
the eighth that gave the American League a 7-6 victory. The blast
came off the Los Angeles Dodgers' usually unhittable closer Eric
Gagne, who had saved 33 of 33 games before the All-Star break.
"The kid did good," Hicks said of the Texas third baseman.
Replied Showalter, "The really great thing is that he'll be the
exact same kid tomorrow."
Blalock, the 22-year-old lefthanded hitter who is enjoying a
breakout season, is beloved by the Rangers for his gaudy
production--through Saturday he was batting .321 with 14 home
runs and 49 RBIs--and his businesslike, humble demeanor. Upon
returning to his hotel room in Chicago after the All-Star Game,
Blalock was receiving so many phone calls from well-wishers and
radio stations looking for interviews that he unplugged the cord
from the wall jack. Says Texas general manager John Hart, "He's
so understated in what he does and how he does things. When
people look at Hank Blalock they see a baseball player in the way
they imagine one should be."
Blalock, who was selected out of high school in the third round
of the 1999 draft, arrived as a highly regarded rookie last
season and won the Rangers' third base job in spring training. In
doing so he became the youngest Opening Day starter in the big
leagues, at 21 years and four months. But overaggressive habits
at the plate and a vulnerability to lefthanders and breaking
balls cut him down to size. After six weeks the 6'1", 195-pound
Blalock was batting .200 with one homer and six RBIs. On May 12,
he was demoted to Triple A Oklahoma City. "I was swinging at bad
pitches and getting myself out," Blalock says. "I was swinging
like a wild man."
Remedial sessions with Rangers minor league hitting instructor
Butch Wynegar sharpened Blalock's pitch recognition and patience
at the plate. At Oklahoma City he batted .307 with eight homers
and 62 RBIs in 95 games before being recalled by the Rangers in
early September. "When an off-speed pitch is in the strike zone,
it's usually a good pitch to hit," Blalock says. "The pitcher's
goal is to start it in the strike zone and have it break out, so
if the pitch stays in the zone, it's hittable. I'm doing a better
job this year of recognizing that and going after it."
Blalock was also instructed to keep from chasing fastballs early
in an at bat and to work the count more, using his quick hands
and compact stroke to protect the plate when he has two strikes.
He has reduced his strikeouts from one every 4.0 major league
plate appearances in 2002 to one every 6.6 this season. Still,
Showalter protects Blalock by sitting him against some of the
toughest lefties, and Blalock was hitting just .236 with one home
run against the rest of the southpaws. "I feel good against
lefties," he says. "It's just something as a young player I'm
During the first half of the season the low-key Blalock, who's
known on the team as Hammer, fulfilled many of the Rangers'
expectations. "All the reports we had said Hank had this kind of
ability," says Showalter, "but I don't think anybody thought it
would happen this year."
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES IN A PINCH Batting for Troy Glaus, Blalock sent Gagne's pitch into the rightfield seats.
COLOR PHOTO: RON SCHWANE/ICON SMI Milton Bradley
Kicking into Gear
Like Hank Blalock, these players were hot prospects whose big
league careers have taken off--in some cases belatedly--this
Pos., Player, Team, Age
OF Milton Bradley, Indians, 25
In trying to overcome his reputation as a hothead, five-tool
player was hitting .321 with eight homers and 15 steals
2B Marcus Giles, Braves, 25
After disappointing season in 2002, his high on-base average
(.362) has made him a valuable table setter in potent lineup
SS Alex Gonzalez, Marlins, 26
Production fell off after big rookie year in 1999, but he has
recovered to hit .283 with 12 homers and 53 RBIs
OF Jose Guillen, Reds, 27
Phenom who didn't pan out with Pirates, Devil Rays and
Diamondbacks had 18 homers and 51 RBIs in 272 at bats
*Statistics through Saturday