There's an old country song, "I've Been Everywhere," that you've probably heard hundreds of times; the Johnny Cash version has become ubiquitous in car rental and hotel commercials. Originally written by an Australian, with Australian place names, it was eventually adapted to the United States. In it, the singer, an imagined hitchhiker, lists off all the places he has been; 68 exotic American locales in all, everywhere from Amarillo to Wichita. The song was a No. 1 hit in the United States in 1962, 11 years before Casey Blake was born. So it only seems that the song was written about Blake, the Indians' well-traveled right fielder.
Since being drafted by the Blue Jays, and before coming to the Indians, Blake has seen action in (deep breath) Hagerstown, Dunedin, Dunedin again, Knoxville, St. Catherine's, Syracuse, Toronto, Salt Lake City, Syracuse once more, Minnesota, Edmonton, Minnesota again, Baltimore, Edmonton again, and Minnesota for the third and final time. On September 21, 2001, the Orioles claimed Blake off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. Barely more than a month later, Blake was claimed off waivers by the ... Minnesota Twins. Ah, the life of a Minor Leaguer. In 1999, Blake got 39 at-bats with the Blue Jays. In 2000, he got 17 with the Twins. In 2001, he had a combined 37 at-bats with the Twins and Orioles. And in 2002, he got 20 at-bats for the Twins. But on December 18, 2002, the Indians signed Blake to a Minor League contract. It hardly made waves around the league, but the Tribe was in a position to give Blake the one thing he lacked: a chance. That season, the Indians finished 74-88. Their everyday third baseman, Travis Fryman, had hit .217 with only 11 home runs in 118 games. Bill Selby played 33 games at the hot corner in 2002, and hit .214. So the Indians could afford to take a chance on a player labeled a "AAAA slugger." "As a Minor Leaguer, you always have to believe that you can succeed in this level when given a chance," Blake says. "It just took me a while to believe that I could play here. But once I believed it, I guess the sky's the limit." Blake didn't reach the heavens in his first year with the Indians; he hit .257 with 17 HRs, but with an unimpressive .312 on-base percentage. But the Tribe didn't really need an Olympian at that point. And if Blake didn't exactly set the world aflame, he did prove that he was capable of being a solid power hitter in the big leagues. He proved himself capable of so much more in 2004, when he rewarded the Indians' continued faith with a .271 batting average and 28 home runs. His .354 on-base percentage was a dramatic improvement from the previous year. But then things went awry. The Indians signed Aaron Boone to play third base for 2005. The Indians hadn't gotten much from right fielder Jody Gerut in 2004, and they saw a chance to improve their production at the position by moving Blake to right field.
Instead, Blake stumbled out of the gate. He hit .188 in April and .204 in May; June was better, but still, his numbers before the All-Star Break were subpar. Everyday right fielders are not supposed to hit .228 with a .300 on-base percentage in the big leagues; right fielders hit, or they start preparing for the realtor's exam.
"There was a lot of things going on in my life, both on and off the field that caused me to be inconsistent," Blake says.
Blake picked it up after the All-Star Break, though his .241 batting average and .308 on-base percentage weren't anything to brag about. But as disappointing as the overall numbers were, most frustrating were his numbers in clutch situations.
Name a situation normally regarded as "clutch" and Blake struggled in it last year. Runners on? Blake had a .192 batting average and .558 (on-base plus slugging percentage). Runners in scoring position? Blake hit .171. Bases loaded? .143. Runners in scoring position, two outs? .085 batting average, .245 OPS.
"Obviously you want to come up in those situations, any situation where you can drive in runs," Blake said. "The thing is, there's a lot of failure in this game. You're not always going to get it done."
That can be easy to forget sometimes. It's also easy to forget the fickle, irrational nature of baseball. Over a career, players tend to be fairly predictable based on past performance. But from at-bat to at-bat, game to game, month to month, even year to year, results can fluctuate for no discernible reason.
So maybe it's foolish to ask why Blake is having so much success in 2006. The .188 batting average in April was replaced this year by a .333 mark. He hit .319 in May. And his .928 OPS entering early June ranks eighth in the American League amongst outfielders.
The obvious question has to be asked, foolish though it is: What's the difference?
"Physically, with my swing, no, [there's no difference,]" Blake said. "Really, it's just getting off to a good start. I've seen success right from the beginning. That's a big key. I've just been able to get hits even when I didn't feel good at the plate.
"That's the key to hitting: thinking you're going to hit the ball, having confidence that you're going to hit the ball. You have confidence when you see success like that. Hitting is lucky. Getting hits is a lot of luck. And I'm getting pretty lucky too."
And those "clutch" statistics? With runners in scoring position, Blake has a .966 OPS. Runners in scoring position with two outs? An astounding 1.237 OPS. Blake is even hitting .750 with the bases loaded, though that's in only four at-bats.
"I don't think anyone expected Casey to get off to this great a start," manager Eric Wedge says. "We all expected him to have a better year this year than he did last year. And obviously he's well on his way to doing that.
"He's a guy that started his Major League career late, and he's really been working hard to get a feel on what type of player he's going to be. And I think he's really settled in nicely. His approach at the plate has been much more consistent, both fundamentally and mentally."
So here we are, four seasons after an overlooked Minor League free agent signed on with a 74-win team. And that Minor League free agent has achieved a level of security and stability he had never known in his professional career. Blake made $2.25 million last season; this year he's bringing in $3.05 million.
"It helps you relax, knowing there's some security there," Blake says. "I'm just very thankful to the Cleveland Indians for giving me the chance, for giving me the opportunity. And now there's no reason I shouldn't be able to relax and have fun and play to the best of my ability."
Blake spent the better parts of six years in the Minor Leagues. But if he keeps hitting like he has in 2006, he'll never have to play a regular-season game in Hagerstown or Dunedin or Knoxville again.
: : : This Edition: June 14, 2006 : : :
Andrew Bare is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.