The news that former Oriole Paul Blair had passed away hit me Dec. 26 as soon as I came out of the studio from taping our weekly TV show, "Inside PressBox." WMAR reporter Christian Schaffer had gotten a call from anchor Jamie Costello, who had gotten a call from someone at AMF Pikesville Lanes, where Blair had been participating in a celebrity bowling tournament.
It seems good news travels fast, and bad news even faster. In no time, I was leaving messages on the voice mails of Blair's former teammates Boog Powell and Jim Palmer. Another one of their brothers had passed. Earlier this year, Baltimore fans lost two other prominent people from the Orioles' first 25 years in Baltimore --- catcher Gus Triandos and manager Earl Weaver.
Blair, nicknamed "Motormouth" because of his incessant chirping and talking during games, would have turned 70 on Feb. 1, 2014.
The New York Mets originally signed Blair as an amateur free agent in 1961. The Orioles plucked him Nov. 26, 1962, in the first-year player draft. Blair first joined the Orioles' big league club for an eight-game cup of coffee in 1964.
He fully graduated to the majors in 1965, and he patrolled center field for the O's from 1965-76. Baltimore traded him to the Yankees in January 1967 for Elliott Maddox and Rick Bladt, both of whom also played outfield. Blair played two full seasons with the Yankees, 1977 and '78, before signing with the Cincinnati Reds as a free agent in May 1979.
Nearing the end of his playing career, he was granted free agency in November 1979. The Yankees re-signed him May 28, 1980, and then released him in July of that year.
It was Blair's scintillating defense that made him a special member of the Orioles. From 1967-75, Blair won eight Gold Gloves. As great as Brooks Robinson was at third base, that's how good Blair was in center field. The Orioles appeared in four World Series during their halcyon years, and Blair was a constant.
Those teams were known for great power with Frank Robinson, Powell and Brooks Robinson, but they were also known for their great pitching, and even better defense. Long before today's defensive metrics were brought into the game of baseball, scouts could see with their eyes what Blair meant to those Orioles teams. So confident was Blair that he could catch anything behind him that he was willing and able to play one of the shallowest center fields ever.
I had grown up a huge Willie Mays fan, and it was almost sacrosanct for me to admit that Blair was a better center fielder. In fact, watching Blair during those years, I think I was watching the best center fielder the game has ever had. Others had better arms than Blair, but for purely outrunning anything an opposing batter hit over his head, and thereby not allowing cheap singles in front of him, Blair was as good as it got.
The only two other center fielders I have seen in his class were both in the National League -- Cesar Geronimo of the Cincinnati Reds and Omar Moreno in Pittsburgh.
Blair's Orioles career didn't cross over my broadcasting career, but as my career developed, Blair was around. Good-natured and affable, Blair didn't let people see the pain he felt from the loss of his son Terry, who died in 1994 at age 29 from complications revolving around treatment for a blood clot in his leg.
I got to know Blair a little bit more closely in 1992 when I attended Orioles fantasy camp in Sarasota, Fla. It was Blair's first year managing a team, and one of my buddies was on his team. We would kid Blair unmercifully as his team lost its first nine games of a 10-game schedule.
After his first and only win, I got to write my first headline for the daily camp newspaper, run by Jay Harris, "Hell Freezes Over, Blair Wins First Game." We all got a chuckle about that, and nobody laughed harder than Blair.
Our loss is heaven's gain; Weaver will get to pencil him in the lineup right away.