Baseball is a sport of youth. Few things epitomize that more than the “Rookie of the Year.” Begun in 1947 on a national basis the award draws attention to the next-greatest-thing in the sport. Some of the winners, like this year’s phenom Ronald Acuna Jr. and Bryce Harper in 2012 were heralded long before arriving on the big stage. They were picked by pundits and analysts to make a splash and did not disappoint. Others emerged from seemingly nowhere to take the honor. Most who have won the award have gone on to have fine careers. Some 16 of the 110 retired award winners have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Subtracting the 10 retired players in the 5-year HOF waiting period yields a rate of 1 inductee out of every 6 ROY award winners. On the other hand some honorees go on to relatively short and nondescript careers.
For all of the Rod Carew and Fred Lynn types who are on the list with long productive careers there is a comparable list of those who did not stick around. The Washington franchises have produced only two ROY winners. Everyone knows about Bryce. But, few know of Albie Pearson. He came to Washington in a three-player swap, caught fire, and won the award in 1958. The very next season he started off ice-cold and was traded to Baltimore after only 25 games. He did have one last good year in 1963 when he was the sole All-Star representative for the 73-win LA Angels.
Pearson had some degree of a bounce back later in his career. Others simply wound down through mediocrity towards an inglorious end. Earl Williams hit 33 home runs during his rookie year. He was done seven years later after several trades. Jason Jennings won 16 games in his ROY season. He would win all of 42 more over his remaining 7 seasons. The examples are numerous. However, one name sticks out; Curtis Leroy Blefary.
The Yankees released Blefary in 1963. Manager Ralph Houk declared that Curt was “expendable.” The comment lit a fire. Claimed by Baltimore he made the big club in 1965 and had a great year. Hitting .260 with 22 homers and 70 RBIs he captured the American League ROY. The following season he hit another 23 homers during a World Series year. His defense was not particularly good. Teammate Frank Robinson gave him the fitting nickname “Clank.” Rotating between corner outfield spots to first base and catcher kept the bat in the lineup, but didn’t help the fielding prowess. By the end of 1968 the batting average had dropped to .200, the homers to 15. During the winter he was part of a multi-player deal to Houston that included until-then middling pitcher Mike Cuellar. When Cuellar came to Baltimore he suddenly bloomed into a 20-game winner for 4 of the next six years. When Blefary left Baltimore he had hit 82 homers. During the rest of his career he would hit a total of only 30 more. The arcs of baseball careers often cross headed in diametrically opposite directions.
After one year in Houston he was traded to the Yankees. A year and change later it was off to Oakland. That lasted for one year. Then it was off to San Diego in May of 1972. That was it; the end of the line in baseball.
Life after baseball was not a bed of roses. Blefary made all of $131,000 during his playing career. He wanted a coaching gig. One never came. The jobs changed seemingly as often as the cities during his playing years; Sherriff, Truck Driver, and Bartender are the partial list. By the middle 1990’s drinking and depression had taken control. He received a hip replacement courtesy of a friend’s generosity because he had no health insurance. In time Chronic Pancreatitis won out. He died on January 28, 2001 at age 57.
In April of that year the construction firm Potts and Callahan began demolition of abandoned Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Constructed in 1922 as a football venue the park was in some ways a time capsule. Sited in a residential district the multi-use facility was the polar opposite from the downtown tourist area complex that replaced it. Reaching the stadium was difficult. There were large vertical support columns that blocked views in the lower bowl. Built originally for wooden bleachers the seating was never comfortable for baseball as the chair orientations were optimal for football. The list of lamentations about the old place is long. But, it did play host to a considerable volume of sports history. By the end of 1991 the gig was up. The Orioles left for the new Camden Yards. After 1999 the last of the various tenants left the place alone to rot. We think of the Roman Coliseum and ancient amphitheaters with reverence and appreciation. A 70-some year concrete and steel cadaver stadium is another matter. Left to roam among the dull gray dimness were the pale ghosts of colorful days gone past the transom.
After little more than a month of demolition in 2001 the crew was tasked with an odd chore; one out of place in the normal cadence of facility destruction. They spent the morning of May 25th clearing the pile of concrete boulders and twisted rebar from the area that had been Home Plate, and then smoothed it. The Babe Ruth museum provided and placed the plate used for the penultimate Orioles’ home game. A small group walked into the hulk wending their way through piles of detritus inside of a yellow-taped path. An unusual sound filled the air for a demo site; silence. Workers turned off all of the various diesel-powered cranes, front-end loaders, and concrete crushers. Hard hats off they watched Reverend Lee pour Curt Blefary’s ashes in a circle around Home Plate. By the end of the day they would be mixed into the piles of remnants. The former Rookie of the Year was forever reunited with the haunts of his best days.
Youth somehow went away at the relentless speed of light. It always does.