When he saw the gate in the right field fence swing open and that long, thin figure come trotting out of the visitor’s bullpen toward the pitcher’s mound at Great American Ball Park Wednesday, Tony Vittorio rose up out of his seat in the back of Section 116, proudly surveyed the reaction of the Oakland A’s fans sitting around him and then turned his attention back to the field.
As he watched Jerry Blevins, the A’s 6-foot-6 left-handed reliever come in to face the meat of the Cincinnati Reds order in the sixth inning, the University of Dayton baseball coach couldn’t help but remember the first time he had seen him throw.
It was 12 years ago — walk on tryouts for the UD baseball team — or, as Vittorio described it, “a collection of gloried high school players “ that rarely yielded a guy who made an impact in the program.
“At the time I asked my pitching coach, ‘Why do we do this?’ ” Vittorio recalled with a chuckle. “That’s when Jerry walked in. He was the last kid to try out and we knew nothing about him. He looked like Howard Stern’s son. He was long and lanky and had hair just like that.”
The only similarity, though, may have been that the kid threw a fastball the same way the shock jock hurled invective: He was wild.
“His first pitch went like 88 mph and the next one was the same, but he never found the strike zone,” Vittorio said. “But (then-pitching coach) Todd Linklater saw something.”
It’s the same thing Andy Noel had seen when he and Blevins — lifelong friends — had been teammates back at tiny Arcadia High in northwest Ohio: “Oh yeah, he was wild in high school, too, but whenever we needed to get out of a jam, he did it for us.”
The pair came to UD in the fall of 2001 as students, not athletes. “We had gone down to the Rec Center and seen a sign-up sheet for baseball tryouts, so we put our names on the list and showed up,” Noel said. “We thought we’d give it a try and see what happens … See where it might lead.”
The answer was clear Wednesday.
It led to the GABP mound after Oakland had clawed its way back to a one-run deficit , 6-5, as the Reds brought Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce to the plate.
Blevins needed just nine pitches to get Votto and Phillips to line out to right and then strike out Bruce on a nasty curve.
Although the Reds held on to win, 6-5, Blevins did his job superbly before being pulled for a pinch hitter.
Tuesday night it was a bit different. He pitched 1 1/3 innings of relief and gave up a lead-off double to Shin-Soo Choo, who scored after he fielded a Derrick Robinson bunt and then sailed his throw to first into right field. He would strike out Votto and Bruce again, but the Reds won, 3-1.
Regardless, Blevins is 5-0 this season and has a 3.35 e.r.a. in 51 appearances.
“It’s definitely pretty cool to watch him out there, but it almost doesn’t seem real,” said Noel, who sat with his wife, daughter, mom and niece in Section 116, as well, Wednesday. “To all of us he still seems like the same old Jerry.”
A small start
Arcadia – in Hancock County – has fewer than 600 residents. There were just 34 kids in Blevins’ graduating class and though he starred at his school, he drew no interest from NCAA Division I schools.
“I was just a small town guy who was never exposed and didn’t know a lot about promoting myself,” he said. “But it worked out better for me. I wasn’t mature enough back then and everybody at UD really helped me develop.”
He became a special project of Linklater — now at Ball State — who, along with Vittorio, taught him both the mechanics of pitching and the mental approach.
Although Blevins played little as a freshman and sparingly as a sophomore, he said he came into his own as a junior: “They finally got in my head I didn’t have to strike everybody out. I just had to throw strikes and let my team do the work.”
The Chicago Cubs selected him in the 17th round of the 2004 draft and he bounced around the minor leagues until mid-2007 when he was traded to Oakland, the team he had loved since he was a kid.
“My older brother was a big Reds fans and I wanted to be like him — but not exactly — so when the 1990 World Series came, I took the other team — the Oakland As — the team with the long hair,” he said.
“For a long time Jose Canseco was my favorite player. Ricky Henderson, too. They were an easy, fun team to follow.”
He made his big league debut with the A’s in September of 2007 and in so doing became the first Flyer to play Major League baseball since Gary Roggenburk pitched for the Seattle Pilots in 1969.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin said the 29-year-old Blevins has really come on the past two seasons: “He’s been in a ton of games for us. We pitch him against righties and lefties. He was big for us down the stretch last year and he’s found his way again this year. Look at his record. He’s instrumental for our team.”
Always a Dayton Flyer
Blevins’ Twitter page introduction reads like this: “Left-handed pitcher, movie connoisseur, gentleman and Dayton Flyer.”
Vittorio will attest to the latter: “He’s never forgotten where he came from. It’s the same for Craig Stammen (former Flyer and Washington Nationals’ pitcher). Just after the two of them signed their new contracts this year, they bought turf for the indoor hitting and pitching facility we have at school. Both of them are great to our program.”
Although Blevins lives in Findlay part of the offseason and visits UD on occasion, he and his family and friends still had Aug. 6 and 7 — the dates of a rare A’s trip to Cincinnati — circled on their calendars.
“It’s great coming home,” Blevins said.” It was pretty cool seeing all those people wearing No. 13 (his A’s number) on their backs in the stands.”
Noel was at both games: “We’re still good friends. In some ways, it’s like nothing has changed with him.”
When Tony Vittorio looks at Blevins now he no longer sees Howard Stern’s son:
“He’s become a real big leaguer. He faced the heart of the Reds lineup today and it was three up and three down. That’s big league player.”