Blake Blase has the chiseled physique of a former college football player and a powerful swing designed to make pitchers cringe.
The intensity seen in Blase’s face and actions might be the most striking aspect of his game.
It’s May 16, five days before the Mid-Missouri Mavericks of the independent Frontier League open their season against the Springfield/Ozark Ducks. The Mavericks are playing an intrasquad scrimmage at Taylor Stadium, a chance primarily for borderline players to show new manager Jack Clark they deserve a spot on the roster.
It’s not important that Blase, an outfielder/first baseman and former Hickman star, has solidified his spot in the middle of Clark’s lineup. It’s not important that Blase blasted a long home run to left field earlier in the scrimmage.
To Blase, 23, it is important that he just grounded out, even if the ball was hit sharply to second base. Almost before Blase runs out of the batter’s box, he slamshis bat to the ground, a look of disgust on his face.
“He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Clark said. “You can tell he loves baseball.”
That love, and the intensity that accompanies it, comes from failure. After Blase’s junior season at Jefferson College, during which he hit .393, the New York Yankees drafted him in the 13th round of the 2002 draft.
New York sent Blase to short-season Class A Staten Island, but didn’t give him much of a chance to show his ability. Blase played in 21 of 76 games, hitting .159 primarily in a reserve role.
New York moved Blase to Battle Creek (Mich.), a Class A team, for 2003. Shortly before the season, the Yankees cut Blase. No other major league organization picked him up.
“It does (get frustrating),” Blase said. “But I believe there’s a plan, everyone has a plan set out for them.”
Blase’s plan brought him back to Columbia. A few days after his release and six games after the Frontier League season began, the Mavericks offered him a contract. The pay was barely $600 a month, but Blase had what he wanted, a chance to prove himself again.
He made the most of that chance, hitting 10 home runs in 250 at-bats, a high number in a league that had three players hit more than 15 home runs. Despite usually batting sixth in a lineup that finished last in the league in hitting, Blase had 42 RBIs. His 21 doubles were sixth in the league.
Still, those numbers were not enough to satisfy Blase’s intensity.
“My first couple weeks were real tough for me because I hadn’t seen a lot of live pitching since college almost,” he said. “But that’s part of baseball. You’ve got to make adjustments. As the season went on I got a little bit better, and hopefully I was able to help our team out a little bit.”
Blase has good reasons for not being satisfied. He hit .240 and struck out 101 times, a high number even for a power hitter.
As Clark is quick to note, those shortcomings can eliminate chances of another offer from a major league organization.
“In this league, you’d pretty much have to dominate, you’d have to be doing something just amazing,” he said. “And then somebody else has to like you. You’ve got to go out there every day, and you don’t know who’s out there watching you, so you have to go out there and play like scouts and major people from organizations are watching you.”
Clark’s assessment is not an exaggeration. There are no former Frontier Leaguers playing in the major leagues today. (Anaheim reliever Brendan Donnelly is on a rehab assignment.). The league’s best-known success stories, St. Louis’ Jason Simontacchi and Donnelly, are pitchers.
Blase is undeterred by the long odds. During the offseason he took batting practice daily with teammate Wes Fewell. A football player at Hickman who earned a scholarship to play that sport at Central Missouri State, Blase also lifted weights to add muscle to his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame.
“He’s a big, strong guy, and the one thing he did this winter was he got himself in good physical condition,” said Bill Clark, the Mavericks’ director of player procurement. “That’s giving him a chance to drive the ball more.”
Clark also said that added power will mean nothing if Blase fails to lower his strikeout total. That fact has not escaped Blase.
“I always want to cut down on my strikeouts,” he said. “Just try to put the ball in play more, especially if I get two strikes on me and not take big hacks and try to hit the ball over the fence all the time.”
Jack Clark has no doubt that, given Blase’s intensity, that goal can be achieved, along with another shot at affiliated baseball.
“He knows he can do more,” Clark said. “And so he just keeps striving for that and hoping he hits a baseball that somebody likes.”