Digital Access

Digital Access
Access saukvalley.com from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, Daily including the e-Edition or e-Edition only.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Choose your news! Select the text alerts you want to receive: breaking news, prep sports scores, school closings, weather, and more. Text alerts are a free service from SaukValley.com, but text rates may apply.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Sign up for free e-newsletters today.
Local

All eyes on Seth Blair

Seth Blair bends over, picks up the ball and walks toward the pitching rubber. Rock Falls' game with Geneseo hasn't started yet. There's no batter standing at the plate, but the senior right-hander is already the focus of every eye at the park.

Blair reaches high into the sky with both hands, and the radar guns pop up. Blair's white left shoe glides into the air. Eight major league scouts are staring at Blair with one eye and the back end of their contraptions with the other.

Blair uncoils, his fastball unleashed. In less than a second, Colby Vos' catcher mitt sounds like a backfiring car. The scouts' faces remain in poker mode, but the "94" in the middle of their machines is exactly what they wanted to see from Blair's fastball - the pitch that brought more than 20 scouts to Rock Falls on this day. The one that earned Blair a full ride to Arizona State. The one that is making his life very complicated right now.

When Seth Blair signed his letter of intent to play for Arizona State last November, he knew his journey was just beginning. He did say goodbye to the college recruiting process, which provided a kind of warmup for what he was about to face. On that day, he said hello to professional scouts and agents. He hasn't said goodbye since.

For Al and Cheri Blair, the games are a respite. Time to turn off the phone and enjoy the reason their oldest child is on so many people's minds. Sometimes Al keeps score. Cheri usually videotapes the Rockets' games, even when Seth's not pitching.

Once the final out is recorded, it's back to the grind.

***

Seth Blair is in high enough demand that even though Arizona State is willing to pay for his education, there is no guarantee he'll ever step foot in Tempe. That 94 mph fastball, the sharp curve, the heavy slider, the pinpoint control and the mental strength in Blair's repertoire has caught the pros' attention. When the major league draft begins on June 5, Seth could hear his name called by a team ready to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign on the dotted line.

Representatives from teams wanting to know how much money it will take to get Seth Blair into their hat bombard the Blair household at all hours, pretty much every night. Agents who see a potential long-term payoff call, too - every day.

"It really hasn't stopped for two years," says Al Blair, who pitched at Southern Illinois and Illinois State. "First you have colleges, colleges, colleges. Then Seth signed in November and it was scouts, scouts, scouts."

"It's affected me a little bit," Seth adds. "You're driving somewhere and your phone rings, and all the sudden you're talking for a half-hour, and now you're late for something. Sometimes you're a little touchy to your family, because you're in a bad mood because you're getting harassed by agents and stuff like that. It's just something you kind of have to get through."

***

The Blairs seem like they're leaning toward making the leap to pro ball if the situation and the money are right. If not, Seth will have no problem joining the Sun Devils - even though that would mean he couldn't re-enter the draft until after his junior year in 2010.

Both situations offer pros and cons for Seth and his family. What if he gets injured at Arizona State? Then again, what if he becomes an All-American? Is he ready to spend four or five years riding buses in the minors? Does he want to bypass the college experience? How many chances does somebody get to become a pro baseball player?

"We've had that talk a million times," says Seth's coach, Donnie Chappell. "Some people have encouraged him to go to school to become a better player. I'm on the other side. Get your certain amount of money. You never get the chance to play professional baseball. To me, that's the big thing."

One Baseball America projection has Seth going in the supplemental first round, 50th overall. Ronald Bourquin, an Ohio State third baseman whom the Tigers picked 50th last June, received a $690,000 signing bonus. Only one high school player picked in the first two rounds in 2006 turned down the money to go to college.

"The money would be nice, but there's other things you have to think about," counters Al Blair, who says there's no magic dollar ultimatum for his son at this point. "A typical day for the minor league player is not very glamorous at all. It becomes more of a business. College is more of a game. In college, they're rooting for you. In the pros, the guy sitting next to you might be fighting for your position. The camaraderie might not be there."

***

Donnie Chappell has been holding his breath for four years. No one who's pitched for the Rock Falls coach has suffered a serious arm injury, thanks in part to the kid gloves with which he treats his hurlers.

Still, every time Seth Blair takes the mound, Chappell feels some anxiety. He knows he's done everything right, but he also knows he'd get most of the blame if Seth ever experienced a significant injury.

"If I said I didn't worry about it, I wouldn't be telling the truth," Chappell says. "I don't think I worry about it too much because I think we're doing the right things. That helps me a little bit. If he turns around and gets hurt, and it's all in the process of what we've always done, I can live with that. If I was out there overthrowing him and he got hurt, that'd be different."

Chappell goes on to talk about how he'd never put one of his players at risk for "just a high school baseball game." The Blairs consider themselves lucky to have a coach with such a big-picture outlook.

"There's more important things," Chappell says. "That's kind of weird for me to say, since I'm the one out here yelling and screaming about everything. But there's no way I'd ever put wins and losses ahead of what's best for my players."

Chappell has felt the heat of Seth's success almost as much as the Blairs themselves. Every night, Chappell's phone rings. When he picks it up, it's the same people, asking the same questions, receiving the same answers the Rockets coach gave them the day before.

"It's not the amount of time, it's the amount of calls," Chappell says. "I'm like, you know, I've talked to five guys already today.

'How's his mom, how's his dad?'

'I don't know, call them.' Sometimes that's frustrating."

***

Chappell has had Division I players before, but Seth Blair is a whole new ballgame. Everyone on Seth's side is involved in this process for the first time, and the agents and scouts know it.

"Everybody's got a scam, everybody's got an angle," Chappell says, "and the hard part is sorting them all out."

"You have to be careful about what you say," Seth adds. "Sometimes the first time you think about something is when someone tells you you said it. That's kind of funny."

The Blairs have narrowed down their agent search to the final three: the Scott Boras Company - the sport's most successful firm, home of everyone from superstars like Alex Rodriguez and Greg Maddux to journeymen like Jose Hernandez and even Walnut native Dan Kolb; the Beverly Hills Sports Council, which represents Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling, and was founded by White Sox executive Dennis Gilbert; and RMG Sports Management, which is based in Hinsdale and has a young, up-and-coming client list anchored by pitchers Roy Oswalt and Rich Harden.

"I tend to be honest, but you can't always lay your cards out for everybody to see," Al says. "They're playing games, so we're playing some back with them. They all want to know what the dollar amount is, and I want to know what the round is. They can't tell me the round, so I can't tell them a dollar figure at this point.

"In the next six weeks it will all work out."

***

By all accounts, Seth Blair is handling the pressure of his talent very well. He hasn't made any extravagant purchases; in fact, he still shares a Buick with his brother, Shane.

Shane Blair is a fine prospect in his own right. Even though a broken wrist will keep him out for most of his junior season, he's still being recruited as a catcher by 25 colleges, and he has realistic Division I hopes. Still, what he's going through is nothing like what he sees with his only brother.

"We don't really talk about it too much," Shane says. "I think he just handles it very well. He gets along with everybody, he knows what to say to the media. He's fine with it."

Shane has no idea what he'd do in Seth's situation. He has no idea what Seth will do either, but he's pretty sure it will be the correct move.

"I think in the end he'll make the right choice," Shane says. "He might ask me for help, but I don't think I'll know what to say.

"Hopefully, if he signs, he gives me some of it. That'd be sweet."

***

Kimberly Voss sits in the front row of the green metal bleachers at Rock Falls. She's surrounded by eight fellow members of the Rock Falls High School class of 2007. The boys are busy making loud jokes; the girls are pretending to laugh. Everyone's enjoying one of their final days of high school.

Kimberly's eyes find their way to the field a little more often than her friends'. Some in the crowd see Seth as a pro prospect. Some see a family member or a friend. Others see a meal ticket.

When Kimberly looks through her black sunglasses, she sees the boy she started dating three years ago. Back then, Kim thought it was pretty neat that Seth played for the varsity team as a freshman. Two summers later, she got an idea of what life dating Seth Blair might be like.

"He had to go to Mexico to play in a tournament, and I was just like 'Wow,' " Voss says. "I guess that's the first time I really realized what was going on."

Everybody's waiting to find out where Seth will be at this time next year. In Tempe, Ariz., playing for one of the best baseball teams in the NCAA? Catching some Zs on a bus headed from Kinston, N.C., to Lynchburg, Va.?

Kimberly knows where she'll be next year: Sitting in a classroom five miles west of where she is at this moment, studying at Sauk Valley Community College.

"We don't talk about it very often," Kimberly says. "I just tell him to do whatever he wants to do, I'll support him all the way. We both know either way we're going to be good friends till the end."

***

Seth Blair has just mowed through Geneseo's powerful lineup, allowing two hits while striking out 15. The scouts don't seem to faze him much anymore, not like they did the first time he noticed them at the 2005 Junior Olympics.

"Really, I think it's better for me," Seth says. "Having that many eyes on you, you know you have to be that much better. You're working not only for your team, but you're also working to get yourself a little money. Every time out there you have to be perfect, or as close to it as possible."

Like his parents, Seth uses his time between the lines to get away from the pressure and all the other parts of a process that he all-in-all calls "pretty sweet."

"I think when I'm on the field is when I'm the most focused, and it doesn't bother me at all," he says. "It kind of gets to you a little bit when you're off the field. You're on the phone till 10 o'clock at night or things like that. You start getting bothered by it.

"But when you're on the field, it's kind of like you're getting away from it for a while. You're just playing baseball."

Loading more