Same Ol’ Charlie

It’s a chilly-but-sunny late-January day in Denver as Charlie Blackmon settles into a corner seat at his go-to breakfast spot, Dozen’s. Blackmon, the starting centerfielder for the Colorado Rockies, is in town for the team’s annual Rockies Fest. He has a jam-packed schedule during his time in Colorado, including a quick promotional trip to Aspen for the X Games, but he makes time for a cover photo shoot and an interview.

Given the hectic nature of the trip, it would’ve been easy for Blackmon to cancel or postpone. But he prides himself on being a man of his word, and this time is no different.

Eating at Dozen’s became somewhat of a ritual during the 2014 season. Blackmon and second baseman D.J. LeMahieu stopped in for a pregame meal the day after an unprecedented opening day, one that saw Blackman go 6-for-6 at the plate, including three doubles and home run. The pair, who lived together last season and both success at the plate that day, considered it good luck. So, they ate at Dozen’s once or twice per homestand, or roughly 40 times, during 2014.

Blackmon orders the same thing – “NotAnOmelet” with chili on top – every time.

“I’m very much a routine guy,” Blackmon said. “I gotta be in my comfort zone, more on the baseball side. If I find something I like, I stick with it.”

The highlight of Blackmon’s 2014 offseason wasn’t eating (although he did plenty of that, too, especially at his favorite Atlanta staple, Waffle House), but traveling, in the form of an impromptu three-week trip to Europe.

By himself.

On three days notice.

But that’s how Charlie Blackmon rolls.

He says he typically takes the month of October off; with a break from working out, he likes to travel during the down time. Blackmon was itching to take a trip, but couldn’t find a companion, so he booked his ticket on a Tuesday and left on Friday.

“I don’t like to plan things in advance,” he admitted. “I have a slight commitment phobia. I’m afraid I’ll plan something and not be able to do it if something else comes up, so I like to wing it.”

It was his first time to Europe and he had a go-with-the-flow attitude the entire trip.

“The winging it part, that was how I roll,” he added. “But that much of a new experience, by myself, I went out on a limb from what I normally do.”

It was well worth it, as Blackmon had the time of his life. For a guy that takes home a nice paycheck (he’s set to make $502,000 in 2015), he stayed in hostels, not five-star hotels like most athletes would. And he toted a backpack, not designer luggage.

Because that’s how he rolls.

He visited several places, including London, Paris (where he met up with Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau and his wife, Krista, who were also vacationing there), Monaco, Rome and Barcelona.

“(Barcelona was ) by far my favorite place,” said Blackmon. “I went to an FC Barcelona match, sat in the front row on accident, and saw (Lionel) Messi score a goal.”

He also spent time in Frankfurt and the Netherlands on his epic journey.

He drives a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, proudly sports a lumberjack beard and sleeps in Batman pajamas. He sported a showy stars-and-stripes shirt with matching shades at last summer’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Off-the-wall? Most definitely. Again, that’s how he rolls.

“I’ve always been kind of a weirdo,” said Blackmon. “You only get one chance at life, so I’m gonna do things for a reason. I’m not gonna let popular culture or the norm get in the way of what I want to do or who I want to be.”

Follow Blackmon on Twitter and Instagram (@Chuck_Nazty) and it’s clear that this is a guy who is very self-aware, highly intelligent and has a wickedly dry sense of humor. His posts make you think and make you laugh.

“I try to be funny in a way that everybody can relate to,” Blackmon admitted. “My favorite stuff to tweet about or talk about is stuff that everybody experiences or knows the feeling, but maybe you’ve never heard it expressed.”

Lifelong Rockies fan Jenn Abraham (26) and her family have had season tickets since the team’s inaugural campaign in 1993. She’s fan of Blackmon and keeps up with him on Twitter and through the team’s Snapchat account. She loves the clever posts and how he “keeps things interesting.”

“He always looks like he’s having such a good time being a goofball; you just can’t help but laugh,” said Abraham. “(He’s) our professional baseball player on the field, and our fun, carefree, creative goofball on the side. I’m proud to be a fan of someone that puts so much time and effort into entertaining his fans both on and off the field.”

Blackmon’s friends agree that his individuality and uniqueness make him one-of-a-kind. Cory Gearrin, a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization, is one of Blackmon’s closest friends. The two lived together both in college and later on in Atlanta – and Gearrin has plenty of classic Blackmon tales to share from over a decade of friendship.

There was the seemingly random, full-sized Britney Spears poster that Blackmon proudly displayed in his dorm room for two years.

“I think there were some very sentimental feelings towards that poster,” joked Gearrin. “Knowing Charlie and how he is with his stuff, I would imagine he’s taken good care of it and still has it somewhere.”

Then, there were the all-night ping pong tournaments where the left-handed Blackmon dominated all-comers. Per Gearrin, Blackmon was not above presenting himself in full ping-pong togs, a complete uniform with a headband and cutoff t-shirt.

Blackmon’s eating habits have also reached legendary status for anyone who’s witnessed him during mealtime on his way to the majors.

“Charlie never missed a meal,” said Gearrin. “That guy crushed food. Everyone called him ‘Chipmunk’ because he would cram so much food in his mouth. His cheeks would just get enormous and everybody gave him the hardest time.”

And then there’s the good ol’ Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“Anybody who knows him and has seen him drive that Jeep – for the last 20 years it feels like – knows that Charlie is not changing anytime soon,” Gearrin said. “Charlie is who he is and we love that guy.”

Jordan Pacheco, a former Rockies teammate now with the Diamondbacks, concurred: “There’s one aspect to Charlie that I really admire; he doesn’t try to be like everybody else. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks about him.”

Blackmon and Pacheco first met in 2008 when they played together in short-season class-A ball for the Rockies. Pacheco recalled his new teammate was a machine at the plate, notching multiple hits every night (in 68 games with Tri-City, Blackmon hit .338 and had 98 hits in 68 games).

“I just remember him being the most goofy, best athlete I’d ever seen,” Pacheco said with a laugh. “It was very impressive to see how much of an athlete he was and how easily everything came to him.”

Blackmon’s fun personality and unconventional approach to life has not changed much over the years, nor has his perseverance or work ethic. From a guy who didn’t know if he’d ever make a major league roster to earning a spot in the 2014 All-Star Game, it’s certainly been a roller-coaster ride for the 28-year-old ballplayer.

There’s no denying, however, that Blackmon has evolved into a talented everyday-player. As he prepares for the next chapter of his baseball story, for the first time in his career, Blackmon’s role is no longer a mystery.

“He knows how much confidence I have in him,” said Weiss. “I see him as a major part of our club, right in the middle of everything. The ability, not only to play centerfield, but to play all three outfield spots. He gives you the power-speed element in your lineup. Charlie is one of the core guys for us.”

Much like his trip to Europe, though, Blackmon doesn’t want to define expectations in 2015.

“I can’t promise much,” he said, when asked about the upcoming season. “I’ll try hard and I’ll try to keep it interesting.”

His journey to the big leagues hasn’t been all that different from that whimsical European trip. It sometimes has been bumpy – sometimes even surreal – and not in any sense “typical” or planned.

“It’s kind of a cool story,” he explained. “I like telling it and it’s kinda refreshing.”

***

Blackmon grew up 30 miles northeast of Atlanta in Suwanee, Georgia, loving any sport involving a ball. In fact, Blackmon’s dad, Myron, actually camped out at a little league park to sign his son up for t-ball because the league was so crowded.

As he grew older, Blackmon took a particular liking to baseball and played a number of positions. He was a shortstop in his youth, and but primarily pitched in high school. He dabbled in the outfield when he wasn’t on the mound.

Blackmon never threw very hard and had to learn to “pitch” rather than “throw,” only reaching the mid-to-upper 80s. The lanky lefty was drafted out of North Gwinnett (Ga.) High School by the Florida Marlins in the 28th round (848th overall), but did not sign. Instead, he opted to pitch at Young Harris, a junior college about two hours north of his hometown. Despite drawing interest from Georgia Tech after his freshman season, Blackmon was committed to keeping his word to the program by playing two years at Young Harris.

During Blackmon’s second year in junior college, injuries in the lineup meant one of the pitchers would have to be used as a designated hitter. Each pitcher had his turn in the batting cage to show what he could do, and Gearrin – then his teammate – fondly remembers Blackmon’s hit parade.

“Charlie went out and took a ridiculous round of batting practice,” he recalled. “Home run, home run, home run. We definitely saw something there, even back then, before he had committed to being a position player.”

Blackmon won the competition and continued to show off his power by blasting a round-tripper in his first at-bat. After that, he was called upon to hit from time to time. Following the season he was drafted again, this time by the Boston Red Sox in the 20th round. But again, Blackmon didn’t sign. He was then off to Georgia Tech – as a pitcher – in 2007.

That year, he suffered from tendinitis in his pitching elbow and received a medical redshirt. Blackmon, however, didn’t think he was good enough to play for the Yellow Jackets, and the frustration almost caused him to hang up his cleats for good.

“I contributed zero to that team,” Blackmon admits. “I was done and (was) not gonna play again.”

Before throwing in the towel, however, he decided once again to try playing outfield, a position he hadn’t played since high school. Blackmon went to work on his outfield skills and got some at-bats that summer with the Colleyville LoneStars in the Texas College League. He hit .318 and took that momentum into his final year at Tech, where he finished with an impressive .396 average and eight home runs.

“Things weren’t going my way, but I kinda overcame it,” Blackmon said. “I feel like I’ve been given lots of second chances.”

***

But Blackmon was also opportunistic and did his part.

The Colorado Rockies took notice and drafted the sweet-swinging lefty in the second round (72nd overall) of the 2008 draft. Keep in mind, Blackmon’s fourth year of school (the same year he was drafted by Colorado) was the only time in his entire baseball career he’d spent a full season as a hitter and outfielder.

In June 2008, he made his professional debut with Tri-City and tore up the league. He moved up to high class-A Modesto and continued to swing a hot bat in 2009, finishing with a .307 average and notching 169 hits in 133 games. The following year at double-A Tulsa, a hamstring injury forced Blackmon to miss the first two months of the season. But he still managed 100 hits in 86 games, winding up with a .297 average.

In 2011, Blackmon started the season at triple-A Colorado Springs. Two months later, he made his major league debut with the Rockies, just three years after the team drafted him. That first call up to the Bigs, however, was short-lived, as he fractured his right foot rounding second base on July 7. He finished the season on the 60-day disabled list. Not one to sit and feel sorry for himself, Blackmon used the time off to complete his finance degree at Georgia Tech.

Although he was cleared to play, the 2012 season got off on the wrong foot again, as Blackmon instantly went on the 15-day disabled list with turf toe. After coming back, he spent the first four months in the minors. It would be August before the Rockies called him back up to Denver. In total, he played roughly 100 games that year (59 in triple-A and 42 with the Rockies) and finished with batting averages of .303 and .283, respectively.

Another unlikely injury provided setback in 2013; this time, it was a staph infection in his right knee during spring training. Without much to show for his time in Scottsdale, Blackmon failed to make the Rockies opening day roster.

“That was really rough on me, so it made me start thinking, ‘Alright, that didn’t work out,’” Blackmon admitted. “You look around the league, by the time you’re 26, if you’re a good player, you’re making the team. It was a hard pill for me to swallow. I always thought I was going to be really good, but it was starting to shake out like, ‘Maybe you’re not.’ Coming to that realization was pretty tough on me.”

Setbacks had never shaped him, though. In fact, they had defined his path up to that point. In what was becoming an all-too-familiar pattern, Blackmon bounced back-and-forth between Colorado Springs and Denver during that 2013 season, eventually getting his game back on track. He played a career-high 82 games in the majors and during the season’s final two months, he hit .332 with 14 doubles, one triple, five home runs and 18 RBI. He earned Player of the Week honors in mid-September and showed versatility in the field bu playing all three outfield spots (17 games in left, 25 in center and 34 in right).

That extended success at the end of the 2013 season gave Blackmon a confidence he hadn’t felt before. Then, when starting centerfielder Dexter Fowler was traded to the Astros that December, it appeared Blackmon would be the favorite to win the job.

But that’s not how he saw it.

While Blackmon knew it was a potential opportunity to start, in his mind, not much had changed. The Rockies had acquired Brandon Barnes in the Fowler trade and also landed Drew Stubbs in a trade with the Reds. He’d have to bring his “A game” and stay healthy if he were to beat out a talented trio of outfielders – Corey Dickerson, Barnes and Stubbs – and make the team out of camp in 2014.

Blackmon returned to Atlanta that offseason to enjoy some down time and prepare for 2014. He worked extremely hard to show the Rockies brass he was worthy of being an everyday player before it was too late.

A key area of focus was implementing more speed into his game. He wanted to become more versatile, have more range in the outfield and steal more bags, so he hired running coach Mike Berenger. Three times a week, Blackmon – along with teammates D.J. LeMahieu, Charlie Culberson and former Rockies infielder Josh Rutledge – made the 35-minute drive to Rapid Performance in Woodstock, Georgia. Blackmon’s training consisted of resistance runs, sled pushing, timed sprints and even video analysis. That extra effort certainly impressed Rockies manager Walt Weiss, who immediately noticed the change.

“He came into (2014) spring training running extremely well; (he) has the ability to cover a lot of ground in the outfield because of it,” said Weiss. “He knows what he wants to do and he does it, that’s why I don’t put any limits on Charlie.”

***

Something else Blackmon worked on during his time off that fall was growing a beard. He stopped shaving when he went overseas for two weeks in October 2013 and his facial hair took on a life of its own.

“I was watching the World Series in Australia and I thought it was cool that they had beards,” Blackmon explained. “I’m not saying that if you have a beard, it changes the kind of player you are, but I just felt like maybe I needed a fresh start.”

Blackmon always thought beards were cool, but didn’t think he had what it took to grow one with gusto. He let his facial hair do its thing for the next several months, and much to his (and everyone’s) surprise, he showed up at spring training in 2014 looking like Grizzly Adams. It took some getting used to, but now it’s part of who he is, according to friend and former teammate in Colorado, Pacheco.

“I don’t mind it,” says the former Rockies prospect. “It’s obviously grown on him (no pun intended). I think people correlate those two things now – the beard and Charlie Blackmon.”

Abraham says matter-of-factly: “(I) wasn’t a huge fan of the beard in the beginning, but it’s grown on me. It’s his signature trait now and he can rock it.”

And rock it he does. Blackmon owns the beard.

He’s quick to point out that he uses a specifically formulated beard wash (“…not shampoo, it has a different PH,” he explains). He also has a special oil that’s designed to keep one’s facial hair soft and conditioned.

Blackmon loves his beard, as do the fans. It’s become his trademark and fits perfectly with his “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” attitude. But there is at least one drawback to all that facial hair.

“I have to stick to knife and fork foods,” he said. “Sandwiches get messy and I haven’t eaten a burger uninhibited in awhile.”

Interestingly, there are some eerie parallels between Blackmon’s beard and his baseball career. He didn’t think he could ever grow a legitimate beard. As it turns out, it took time (a year-and-a-half and counting), care (recall “a different PH balance”) and patience for that beard to be in the running for the facial hair Hall of Fame.

And when his career appeared to be on the brink of extinction, Blackmon continued to persevere. He took care of his body and patiently waited for his opportunity to shine.

Just like that beard.

***

With a beard on his face and a bat in his hand, Blackmon was primed and ready for a breakout year in 2014. And while he didn’t necessarily light the world on fire that March, Weiss believed the second half of Blackmon’s 2013 season carried more weight than his lackluster spring training heading into the 2014 campaign. As a result, Blackmon made the team out of camp for the first time. Still, he was one of six outfielders on the roster. He wasn’t comfortable with where he stood, but when Weiss started Blackmon in centerfield to open the season at Miami, it eased Blackmon’s mind, at least temporarily.

“The fact Charlie started on opening day, I think that told him all he needs to know,” said Weiss.

When Blackmon and the Rockies returned to Coors Field for the home opener April 4, no one could have predicted what happened next. Blackmon not only hit leadoff (where he continued to bat all season) and started in center, but he put on a performance for the ages, going 6-for-6 with three doubles, a homer and four runs scored – all in a 12-2 thrashing of the Diamondbacks.

“It was a super big deal, and something that I’d never done before, make a team and then also to be starting opening day,” he said. “It was really exciting and a dream come true.

“The big thing for me was, ‘Okay, whatever, I got six hits that day.’ That doesn’t give you any more hits towards the next day.”

Blackmon finished the month hitting .389 and continued his hot streak into mid-May. During that time, he led the National League in almost every offensive category and was the early MVP favorite. For the first time in his career, he was 100 percent healthy and getting consistent at-bats. He also had the confidence of the manager after working through various adjustment periods at the major league level. On top of that, he continued to put in countless hours (as he had done in the past) studying video of opposing pitchers and dissecting scouting reports.

His monster performance in April and May earned Blackmon a spot on the NL All-Star team last summer. From almost quitting the game to joining the sport’s elite players in the Midsummer Classic, it was the ultimate reward and offered validation for a career that almost didn’t happen.

“I feel like I kinda snuck in there,” Blackmon said of the All-Star nod. “Maybe it’s better for me to think that. It was a great opportunity and it’s not something that comes easy.”

Blackmon soaked in the atmosphere, attended parties and walked the red carpet in the aforementioned stars-and-stripes shirt during the All-Star festivities. He was like a “deer-in-the-headlights” on his whirlwind trip to Minneapolis, but he still enjoyed every minute of it.

“Just because I was an All-Star last year doesn’t mean I should approach things any differently this year,” Blackmon explained. “Or I should get more stuff or be treated differently. I don’t want to make too big of a deal about it.”

Unfortunately, the second half of the season didn’t go as smoothly for Blackmon. From mid-May on, Blackmon hit just .268. And as he struggled, so too did the team, finishing an abysmal 30 games under .500 (66-96) and a distant fourth place in the NL West. In the case of Blackmon’s decline, his managed thought it boiled down to consistency.

“It’s such a grind of a season that guys are looking to be consistent for six months; it’s really hard to do,” explained Weiss. “That’s probably the next step for Charlie. We saw him be one of the hottest players in the game; he had his struggles at times in the second half, but even when he wasn’t swinging the bat as well as he did in the first half, he’d still help us win games by getting on base, stealing bases, playing multiple positions in the outfield.”

Performing at a steady clip through an entire season is one of the things Blackmon looks to improve upon in 2015. In addition, his offensive output away from Coors Field needs to increase dramatically. His 2014 numbers on the road weren’t good, as he posted just a .241 batting average (vs. .331 at home), .269 on-base percentage (vs. .391) and fewer homers, RBIs and stolen bases, as well.

The good news is that Blackmon wound up with an overall average of .288 in 2014, blasted 19 homers, 72 RBIs and a swiped career-high 28 stolen bases. Perhaps the most impressive number is a team-high 154 games played; Blackmon also had the most plate appearances on the team (593) by a long shot. In the field, he committed just seven errors in 330 chances and finished with a .979 fielding percentage.

Despite Blackmon’s breakout year in 2014, he is still the same quirky and talented guy he’s always known.

“He’s gotten a little more confidence over the years,” Pacheco explained. “I think he’s realizing how good he can actually be. But he’s the same guy. He has the same truck and the same Crock-Pot from the first time I met him.

“So you can’t say much has changed.”

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