Monday, November 12, 2018

Carpe Noctem: The Geoff Blum Story

A baseball season can seem so long that a single plate appearance can seem largely insignificant. As summer's long days turn cold and the importance of each game grows, pressure can change a batter's approach. This is the essence of what you might hear as "postseason experience," that enigmatic entity that seems to benefit some and forsake others. Perhaps there is little to all of that. If given only one opportunity at the highest stage, a player should, by that theory, crumble. But when the sample size is as low as possible, the predictability of the result is thrown into chaos. If given one at-bat in the World Series with the game in the balance, how would you fare? For Geoff Blum, the opportunity was there, all he had to do was decide what to do with it.


July 31, 2005. The non-waiver trade deadline was far from exciting, with MLB.com shrugging that the Cubs' deal of Jody Gerut for Matt Lawton was potentially the deal of the day. There were plenty of minor trades to shore up bench depth or strengthen a bullpen, but nothing of the blockbuster sort that sometimes haunts the 4:00 PM Eastern deadline.

The late Kevin Towers was General Manager for the San Diego Padres. His pitching career had topped out at triple-A Las Vegas in 1988. By the time he turned 28, he was done playing and took on a job as pitching coach with single-A Spokane before beginning a journey as a scout. In 1995, at the age of 33, he was named GM of the Padres. Three years later, San Diego had a National League pennant.

The early aughts were far less kind than the nineties had been. The Towers-designed teams had finished last or next to last in five consecutive seasons, narrowly avoiding 100 losses in 2002 and 2003. All the while, Kevin Towers and manager Bruce Bochy, who had also joined the team in '95, kept their jobs. The ice was wearing thin however. By 2005, the team had only managed one winning season since the pennant of 1998: a third-place-worthy 87 wins. Towers had an active offseason, acquiring value wherever he could to manage a lower-tier budget. One of many signings was free-agent Geoff Blum, a 31-year old switch-hitter who could play practically any position on the field.

Blum had made a career off of his versatility. He could hit well enough from either side of the plate, but his power came from batting left-handed. Debuting with Montreal in 1999, he became somewhat of a journeyman over the years. First being traded to Houston for Chris Truby, a third baseman who was largely below replacement level during his four years in the Majors. Two offseasons later, the Astros sent Blum to the Rays for Brandon Backe, a pitcher who had a decent six-year career following the deal. More on him later.

Blum's 2005 in San Diego was less than to be desired with regards to power, but he did a fair amount of damage with the playing time he was given. One spot where Blum had excelled was coming up in tie game situations. His slugging percentage was .105 higher than in situations where the game was within one run.

By the time July was winding down, the Padres were somehow in first place of the West Division while maintaining a record below .500. The trade deadline loomed, and Kevin Towers sat in a position of the rooster laying an egg on a roof. Would he buy or sell? Of course, roosters don't lay eggs as the riddle goes, and Towers did neither. The trade of Geoff Blum to the Chicago White Sox was an afterthought even on a rather uneventful trade deadline. In return,  Sox GM Kenny Williams sent minor league pitcher Ryan Meaux to San Diego. He would never reach the Majors.

Ken Williams became General Manager of the White Sox in 2000. He had been drafted by the Sox in 1982 and spent three seasons in Chicago, mostly as an outfielder. In 2003, he fired then manager Jerry Manuel and hired his former teammate and fan favorite Ozzie Guillen to run the on-field operations. Guillen's outspoken nature and clubhouse influence were going to be the cornerstone of the new White Sox. Williams remade the team, turning over the roster to focus more on pitching, defense and "small ball" type players who would manufacture runs rather than try to knock every ball into the stands. He sent Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for Scott Podsednik and Luis Viscaino in the winter of 2004, and then went relatively quiet.

Williams' White Sox were also in first place on July 31st. In contrast to San Diego, the Sox were 13.5 games up in the Central Division and 32 games over .500. They were marked as buyers as much as any team could be, but Williams made only one deal at the deadline- Meaux for Blum. He was a prototypical deep-roster guy for Guillen's squad- the kind of guy who could platoon against lefties or righties in a pinch and cover defensively as the dog days of summer began to wear on his regular rotation guys.

Geoff Blum's time with the White Sox was short and otherwise lackluster. He batted .200 over 95 at-bats and was on the deepest part of the roster when the AL Division Series began. Against the defending champion Red Sox, Blum came to the plate once. He was subbed in for first baseman Paul Konerko in the eighth inning of game one with his team up 14-2. He popped up to second baseman Tony Graffanino to end thin inning. Blum would not see any action in the AL Championship series against the Angels.

All the while, the White Sox were in the midst of one of the most dominant postseasons of all time, in any sport. Through the ALCS, they had only lost one game. The pitching and defense that Williams had desired came to fruition, and the White Sox had their first American League pennant since 1959.

There was little place for Geoff Blum in the 2005 World Series. The White Sox had eeked-out two close games over the Astros. The Series shifted to Houston for game three and he was without a chance at the plate.

The starter for Houston was NLCS MVP Roy Oswalt. Houston jumped out to a 4-0 lead, and it began to look as though the Astros would make the World Series an extended contest after all. Then in the top of the fifth inning, Oswalt surprisingly gave up five runs on six hits.

It wasn't until the bottom of the eighth, with two outs, that the Astros evened the score.

On and on into the night the game grew, to the tenth, the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth innings. Tension mounted as the game, knotted at five for nearly two hours, reached the fourteenth inning.

Until game three of this year's Series, the longest game in World Series history by time was game three of the 2005 edition at five hours, 41 minutes. Houston, desperate for its first championship, had fought hard in each of the first two games and were doing everything in their power to ward off a 3-0 deficit.

A double-switch brought Geoff Blum into the game in the thirteenth, replacing pitcher Bobby Jenks in the lineup and Tadahito Iguchi at second. In the next inning, Blum was set to bat third.

Eventual World Series MVP Jermaine Dye singled, but game two hero Paul Konerko grounded into a double play.

In 2005, as a left-handed batter, Geoff Blum slugged a modest .351 against right-handed pitching. Ezequiel Astacio, a Dominican pitcher whose time in the Majors lasted one year and one week, was a righty. Manager Phil Garner's bullpen had been whittled down to a point of exhaustion, leaving the young and inexperienced Astacio to ward off the heart of the Sox order. It had worked for two-thirds of an inning.

Blum didn't like the first two offerings from Astacio and neither did home plate umpire Jerry Layne. The count was two balls, no strikes when Astacio delivered.

Geoff Blum would never reach the World Series again. He would make the playoffs with St. Louis and have a solid fourteen year career. He hit precisely 100 home runs in total. After his playing days ended, he took on a role as color analyst with the Astros, where he has been since 2013. Blum witnessed from the broadcast booth as the Astros won their first World Series, twelve years after preventing it.

That's because when Astacio delivered the 2-0 pitch, Blum decided to swing. He swung so hard and fast that by the time the ball cleared the right field wall, Fox broadcaster Joe Buck barely had time to mention it on air. He was mid-sentence, talking about the length of the game and its historical significance. Then the game was 6-5 that quick. Blum had put the Sox ahead, a lead that would be enough to take game three. Blum rounded the bases as if he had been there dozens of times. This was the World Series, and he had just hit a home run in a moment that most players in baseball history never even approach but always fantasize.

Geoff Blum spent three months on the South Side of Chicago, yet he is eternally a part of White Sox history.

Ezequiel Astacio didn't get another out, and was ousted after walking Chris Widger with the bases loaded to make the lead 7-5.

Game four was another close contest. The starter for Houston was the aforementioned Brandon Backe, who pitched a five-hit, no-run gem over seven innings. He handed the ball over to Brad Lidge for the eighth inning after walking off the seventh to an ovation. Lidge gave up a run in that inning: a small-ball, manufactured run by way of a single, sacrifice bunt, soft ground out to second, and a single. The White Sox won 1-0 to clinch their first World Series title in 88 years, the second-longest drought in MLB history.

The 2005 World Series was one of the most tightly-contested iterations of the more than century-old classic. Despite the sweep, the run margin was only six.

Geoff Blum re-signed with the Padres for a year that offseason, then went back to Houston for three seasons.

In 2010, he was the first signing for newly-hired Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager... Kevin Towers.

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Carpe Noctem: The Geoff Blum Story

A baseball season can seem so long that a single plate appearance can seem largely insignificant. As summer's long days turn cold and th...