Even though he spends most of his time living in the moment, Seth Blair can't stop the memories from bubbling up every time he visits the Rock Falls baseball diamond.
It was here where the former Rocket standout cut his teeth and first learned his craft. It was here where his dreaming started … and it hasn't stopped yet.
Fresh off his third summer as a professional baseball player, the former three-time SVM Player of the Year and 2010 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year at Arizona State is still looking forward – and bringing along the lessons of the past.
"It's all about what's happening now and what's going to be happening next," Blair said last weekend in the place where his rise to professional baseball began. "I've put the past 2 years in the past, and I learned a lot from them, but now I'm putting that to use so I can prepare to be the best that I can going forward."
The past 2 years haven't been what Blair imagined. Drafted 46th overall by the Cardinals in the 2010 MLB first-year player draft, his first pro season of 2011 was spent in the Quad Cities. He struggled with his control and consistency, and was ultimately left off the River Bandits' postseason roster.
Last summer, he was ready for a fresh start in high Class A Palm Beach, but a finger injury sidelined him for most of the season. A benign tumor was discovered in a finger on his pitching hand, and it took time for the resulting microfractures following surgery to heal.
This spring, he again moved up the ladder, and found his most consistent success so far. He spent the season with Double-A Springfield, and overcame a slow start to finish his first full season as a pro.
"One of my main goals going into the season was, 'Let's pitch every 5 days for an entire season,'" Blair said. "By going out there and getting that experience, you're only going to get better. Being out there through the easy innings, hard innings, there's just always something that you can gain from having the game experience.
"Making it through the whole season is something I'm proud that I did, but the fact that it took me three full seasons to finish one season is something that definitely motivates me to go back and do it again … for the next 10 years."
One of the things that originally drew Blair to baseball as a youngster – besides his copious natural talent and ability – was how cerebral the game was.
It's also what picked him up after a rough first month, where his ERA was above 8.00 and he was struggling to regain the form that made him such a prized commodity coming out of ASU.
"When I went out there and didn't have as much success as I wanted to, it was kind of a test," Blair said. "I told myself, 'Hey, things haven't really gone your way the first 2 years, but you've just got to stay the course.' Every day was a new opportunity to get better, and I think by taking that approach, I really started to see results after that first month."
Never one to linger over his own stats or press clippings anyway, Blair took the tough start as a sign to eschew all the outside factors and look into himself for the answers.
By the end of the season, he had taken more than 3 points off his ERA and held opposing hitters to a .259 batting average. His 117 strikeouts to 48 walks was by far the best ratio since his junior season with the Sun Devils, and the 129 2/3 innings was nearly 30 innings more than he had pitched his first two pro seasons combined.
"I don't think you have to worry about stats, because they take care of themselves," Blair said. "You're going to get 75 to 100 pitches every start, and it's about making every pitch count.
"When you have a horrible month to start the season, you know that you're always going to be fighting to get back to where you want to be. I think that kind of helped in a way, actually; why worry about stats, just go out there every single day and just pitch and get your confidence back."
What turned out to be a big help was actually getting away from the intellectual aspect of the game. While Blair loves to be challenged both physically and mentally, that bad first month forced him to stop thinking through things and just go by feel.
As he started trusting his instincts and ability, a funny thing happened: Blair remembered how it used to feel out on the mound, and he started channeling and focusing that energy into each and every pitch.
"You just get into the zone," Blair said. "In the past, I was out there thinking too much; now, my goal is to not think. My goal is to know what pitch I need to throw, and throw it with conviction. There's no wavering. If you give up a hit or a home run or something crazy happens, it doesn't matter, because it's all about the next pitch.
"When you learn to start living pitch to pitch, moment to moment, it makes it a lot easier to go through the process, to really focus on the little things that happen in a game that nobody ever talks about, but are really what it takes to be a major league pitcher."
It's a lesson he learned from his roommate to start the season, Kevin Siegrist. The Cardinals' Minor League Pitcher of the Month in May, Siegrist was called up to the majors on June 6 and has spent the rest of the summer in the St. Louis bullpen.
But it was something he and Blair were talking about early in the season that finally settled into Blair's conscious – and subconscious – mind.
"He said, 'If you're afraid to throw to any Double-A hitter, how are you going to pitch in the big leagues?'" Blair recalled. "It's the mindset that these hitters can't touch you, and once I started believing in my stuff again, it just made the game a lot more fun.
"It was like one thing clicks, then another thing clicks, and all of a sudden, you've got your confidence back. Then it was just me and the batter, and I'm going to go out there and attack him."
Siegrist was one of four teammates who started the season in Springfield and ended up in the majors, and it's given Blair optimism that no matter where he starts next summer – be it Double-A Springfield or Triple-A Memphis – he has a chance to make it to The Show.
Blair also believes that he now has the knowledge and experience necessary to open some eyes around the organization. He now realizes what it takes to get through the grind, day in and day out, and still be successful.
"I really do feel comfortable now," he said. "I think it was definitely an adjustment period, but now this is my third year, and I feel comfortable with the way I need to go about things. I'm always going to be learning, and as I get older, some things are going to get harder and some things are going to get easier. I just have to keep listening to my body, to my coaches, and use the experience I have under my belt to take full advantage of my opportunities wherever I am when the call comes.
"Nobody's perfect, and no one ever will be. But if you're not striving to get perfection out of what you're doing, then I think you're wasting your time."
And if there's one thing Blair rarely does, it's waste time. Even as he sits in the dugout at the diamond where he spent some of his favorite springs with the Rockets, childhood memories commingling with more recent experiences, it's easy to see how the boy who loved the game from the very beginning has grown into the man who still can't get enough.
Rest assured, even when he's swimming in the past, Blair will always keep striving toward the future.
2013 – 3-9, 5.07 ERA, 24 games (22 starts), 129 2/3 IP, 83 R (73 ER), 149 H, 117 SO, 48 BB, 18 HR, .259 opponent BA (with Double-A Springfield)
2012 – 1-3, 4.58 ERA, 7 games (6 starts), 19 2/3 IP, 12 R (10 ER), 19 H, 13 SO, 16 BB, 1 HR, .264 opponent BA (with High-A Palm Beach)
2011 – 6-3, 5.29 ERA, 21 games (21 starts), 81 2/3 IP, 54 R (48 ER), 79 H, 70 SO, 62 BB, 9 HR, .259 opponent BA (with Class A Quad Cities)
Career – 10-15, 5.10 ERA, 52 games (49 starts), 231 IP, 149 R (131 ER), 247 H, 200 SO, 126 BB, 24 HBP, 4 balks, 22 WP, 28 HR, .259 opponent BA