Independent spirit at heart, Blacken returns home to play

Harold Pyatte wanted a coach, not a player. Beau Blacken fit the bill.

A retired professional ballplayer, Blacken, 27, had returned to his hometown of Lake Stevens to set up a baseball training facility called “The School of Hard Knocks.”

“We met over coffee and I told him our kids needed help with their hitting,” said Pyatte, the coach of the Everett Merchants semi-pro baseball team.

He would hire Blacken primarily as the team’s hitting coach, with a chance that he might get a few at-bats during the Pacific International League summer season.

That was fine with Blacken.

Then, just for fun, Blacken stepped into the batting cage at Everett Memorial Stadium and took a few swings during a practice session before the season-opening series last month.

And suddenly, Pyatte was left standing there with his mouth agape. “He hit so many balls out of the park, it was ridiculous,” Pyatte said.

The coach knew immediately that he was going to have to re-think his original decision. He had to get Blacken into the lineup.

So what did Blacken do in the second game of the season? He hit a three-run homer to win it.

He hasn’t come out of the lineup since, being used as the team’s designated hitter. “He changes the complexion of the game,” Pyatte said. “He commands a lot of respect.”

Which is something Blacken didn’t do in his first go-around with the Merchants several years ago.

Blacken was in college then, playing for New Mexico State, and when he came back home during the summer, he played for the Merchants and, in the words of Pyatte, “didn’t do very well.”

Blacken said there was a reason. When he turned out for the Merchants, he was feeling the effects of having caught nearly 60 games that season for his college team and he was fatigued.

Pyatte also had spotted a flaw in his game. “He had a pretty long swing,” the coach said.

For that reason, Pyatte had doubts that Blacken would be drafted.

As it turned out, he was right.

Which baffled some people. “Every coach I played for felt there was absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have been drafted,” said Blacken, who had slammed 14 home runs and driven in 61 runs during his final year at New Mexico State. “I’d pretty much led every team I’d ever played for.”

Undaunted, he set out determined to play professional baseball.

He went to a San Diego Padres tryout camp. “If they like you, they sign you on the spot,” he said.

He went unsigned. But not unnoticed. “There were a lot of independent league coaches there,” he said. “They really liked me.”

Though not affiliated with any major league teams, the independent leagues give non-draftees an opportunity to be seen by big-league scouts, and several guys have made it to the top, including former Mariner relief pitcher George Sherrill.

Blacken would put in four years as an outfielder/third baseman/first baseman in the Frontier League, playing for the Chillicothe (Ohio) Paints, the Evansville (Ind.) Otters, and the Florence (Ky.) Freedom, hitting 50 home runs, driving in 233 runs in 378 games, and twice batting better than .300.

Florence manager Jamie Keefe told Blacken before his final season in 2007 that he wanted him to hit 15 home runs and drive in 75 runs. Blacken responded with 15 homers and 73 RBI, as well as a .316 batting average.

“He’s a man of his word,” Keefe said. “The guy could do anything.”

One noteworthy thing that Keefe felt Blacken could do was hit major league pitching. “Absolutely,” he said.

Aside from his talent, Keefe admired Blacken for the way he played the game — hard but clean. “He was really bright, an elite professional, he went about the game the right way,” Keefe said. “He was not just a good baseball player, but a great person and a fearless leader.

“Quiet, but between the lines, he had that Jay Buhner look. A big, strong guy with an enormous heart. And as clean a baseball player as you could get. When he came around third, you didn’t want to be the catcher standing there with the ball because he’d get you. Then he’d help you up.”

When he signed with Chillicothe his rookie season in 2004, Blacken’s manager was Keefe, who told him he needed 15-plus home runs and he didn’t care if he struck out 100 times. So Blacken hit 17 homers and struck out 102 times.

Blacken’s first indication that he was a “stand and deliver” type of guy.

He also became a very popular guy with Chillicothe fans.

“Everybody loved Beau,” said Phil Gray, a sportswriter who covered the team for the Chillicothe Gazette. “He’d stay and sign autographs for everybody.”

Midway through his second season with the Paints, Blacken got traded to Evansville, which caused an uproar among Chillicothe fans. “There are factions of fans who are still angry about that trade,” Gray said in a telephone interview. “It’s been mentioned already this season. He was that well liked, a great guy.”

He was popular with the fans, and respected by the opponents. “He was one of the most feared hitters in the league,” Keefe said. “He was probably respected by more clubs in this league than any other player. He was a game-changer; he figured out a way to beat you.”

As he did in two of the three All-Star games he played in. In his second year in the league, he had the game-winning RBI for the Frontier League’s East Division team. The next year, having been traded to Evansville, Blacken tied the All-Star game for the West team with an RBI double in the ninth inning, setting the stage for the “highlight of my career.”

The game was decided with a Home Run Derby, each manager picking three players from his team to duel it out. Each player got three at-bats. The East team batted first, and hit only one home run. Feeling as if he was “in a zone,” Blacken told his two teammates “I’ve got this, don’t even pick up a bat.”

On his first swing, he connected and the ball went 480 feet. A “monster blast,” he called it, and the game was tied. “The next swing it went even further,” he said, relishing the moment even as he remembered it three years later.

That made him the game’s MVP.

Major Leaguers may make all the money, but guys in the bush leagues have most of the fun.

Blacken and two of his Chilllicothe teammates were the principal figures in a documentary film about life in an independent league.

He also played in the ballpark that was used as a setting for the movie, “A League of Their Own.” Historic Bosse Field is the third oldest professional ballpark in the country, with only Fenway Park and Wrigley Field having more wrinkles. A mural of Blacken was done at Bosse.

Listening to him, you get the feeling that he really enjoyed his time in the Frontier League, especially in Chillicothe. “I liked the small town atmosphere,” he said, “and they were really good fans. It would be like putting a professional team in Arlington. It had a really neat field, and maybe 1,500 fans a night.”

Loyal fans. But then, when a player is as good as his word, they had reason to be.

Article courtesy of Everett Herald