CHARLIE BLACKMON, THE Colorado Rockies‘ leadoff hitter, center fielder and Renaissance man-in-residence, believes it’s possible to dedicate himself to his profession without becoming a one-dimensional, cardboard cutout of a human being. So he likes to carve a chunk out of his offseason and explore far-flung locales in the name of self-fulfillment.
A few years ago, Blackmon jetted off to the east coast of Australia. The following winter, he grabbed a backpack and passed through London, Paris, Nice, Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Frankfurt on a three-week jaunt before returning home to Georgia. He slept in hostels and experienced what he calls the “whole college, walkabout thing” at age 28.
“I don’t want to be narrow-minded,” Blackmon says. “I think it’s good to broaden your horizons a little bit, gain some perspective and interact with people who have completely different backgrounds than you. I think it’s made me a better person and helped me appreciate my life more.”
Whether abroad or at home — like the time he traveled to Idaho in the offseason to film a hunting show — Blackmon is free to indulge his wanderlust in anonymity. As the Rockies bust out this year and sit a half-game behind Los Angeles in the National League West with a 33-21 record, the best center fielder in baseball (non-Mike Trout division) isn’t even the biggest story in his own clubhouse.
Early media accounts of the Rockies’ surprising breakout have focused on new manager Bud Black’s positive influence, a precocious starting rotation led by rookies Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland, and Greg Holland‘s rebirth as a shutdown closer. And any conversation about Colorado’s potent lineup is likely to begin with All-Stars Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez before making reference to Blackmon and 2016 National League batting champion DJ LeMahieu.
But Blackmon’s fingerprints are all over the Rockies’ fast start. He leads the National League with 72 hits, eight triples and 138 total bases, and his .457 batting average with runners in scoring position has put him on pace to join Darin Erstad of the 2000 Anaheim Angels as the only leadoff man in MLB history to drive in 100 runs. It’s going to take some serious regression or a barrage of anti-Coors Field sentiment to deprive Blackmon of his second career All-Star appearance in July.
“There’s an everyday performance that shows up,” Black says. “He’s durable. He brings a workmanlike attitude every day that I think we all see and admire. It’s the pregame routine. He doesn’t give away at-bats. He grinds from pitch one to the last pitch of the game both on defense and at the plate. He’s engaged during the game. There are so many intangibles. It rubs off on guys. He’s such a big part of our group.”
Rockies-watchers who are paying close attention will see more than a player who’s finally blossoming at age 30. Blackmon has a bachelor’s degree in finance and an affinity for chess and other strategy games. He’s an ardent fly fisherman, a skilled juggler and an engaging tweeter who dispenses entertaining insights under the moniker @Chuck_Nazty.
Peer beyond the massive beard, the eye black and the shades, and you’ll find a player with a “most interesting man in the baseball world” quality.
“My friends don’t know what kind of person I am on the field. I’m a completely different person, I think, and this look very much reflects how I try to play the game.”
“Charlie walks to the beat of his own drum, there’s no question,” says broadcaster Cory Sullivan, a former Rockies outfielder. “But he’s brilliant. He sees the game of baseball from a different perspective. He can remove himself from it and be really objective and think, ‘What can I do to make the people around me better?’ It’s like a meta-awareness that not many people have.”
THE PEOPLE WHO interact with Blackmon on a daily basis say he has a flair for sarcasm reminiscent of former Rockies great Todd Helton — minus the trademark grumpiness that Helton so assiduously cultivated through the years.
“Charlie is very quick-witted,” says Rockies broadcaster Ryan Spilborghs, Blackmon’s teammate in Colorado in 2011. “He has a math, economics brain about him. Basically, he’s a left-handed pitcher in a left-handed outfielder’s body.”
Blackmon’s playful side was evident during a recent television broadcast, when he grabbed the microphone from Sullivan, turned a postgame interview sideways and then winked to the camera as he threw it back to postgame hosts Jeff Huson and Jenny Cavnar in the studio.
.@Chuck_Nazty conducted his own post-game interview. And it was epic.
Turn your SOUND ON to LOL! 🔉 pic.twitter.com/51fbawjYd2
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) May 24, 2017
Blackmon owes some of his wry sense of humor and well-rounded personality to his parents, Myron and Ellen, who supported him in his athletic endeavors while making sure he and his sister, Katie, adhered to high academic standards. Myron works for a business services company that does consulting work for payroll and human resources, and Ellen was an algebra teacher. They passed along their distaste for shortcuts to their two children. Charlie and Katie received praise if they scored well on a test, but they also had to review the mistakes that made the difference between a 95 and a 100 before moving on to the next challenge.
Athletics were a constant in the Blackmon household in suburban Atlanta. When Charlie wasn’t pitching or playing the outfield, he was a left-handed catcher and shortstop on the Little League team that Myron coached. He dabbled in soccer, basketball and football before approaching his parents as a high school junior and announcing his intention to focus strictly on baseball.
“As a little kid, Charlie loved anything physical,” Myron says. “His first word was ‘ball.’ I know that for a fact, because I was there when he said it.”
Blackmon gravitated to Georgia Tech, where he converted from pitcher to outfielder and received a $563,000 signing bonus as a second-round pick in the 2008 draft. But in the minor leagues, he was always behind someone else in the prospect pecking order. First it was Tim Wheeler and Kyle Parker. Then he graduated to the majors and waited in line behind Tyler Colvin. It took a 6-for-6 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks and a .374 April in 2014 for Blackmon to finally stake his claim to a full-time job.
“He earned his opportunity, and once he got it, he’s never relinquished it.” Spilborghs says. “He’s gone through his thought process where he’s always asking himself, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ If you ask him, he’ll tell you that his career is a small window, and [he] doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.”
Blackmon’s minus-6 defensive runs saved in center field this season could use some improvement, and he and his fellow Rockies hitters will always be under scrutiny because of the gaudy stats they compile at mile-high altitude. Blackmon has a career .931 OPS at home compared to .727 on the road. But the Coors Field factor was negligible last year when he hit 17 of his 29 homers on the road and logged a .926 OPS in away games compared to .939 in Denver.
If Blackmon’s personal history is any indication, he’ll continue to attack each weakness with tunnel vision. One year he arrived in the Cactus League and decreed that he would improve his two-strike approach. Another spring, he willed himself to run deeper counts and see more pitches.
This season, he set his mind to doing a better job of minimizing the down times and bouncing back from failure.
“If I make a bad play or don’t have a good at-bat, I want to immediately get rid of that and become a good productive player right after that happens,” he says. “I’m not going to let that drag me down for the rest of the game.”
BLACKMON WAS JUST another wholesome, clean-cut American kid until the 2013 season, when he watched the Boston Red Sox win the World Series with some gnarly beards and developed a kinship with the group from afar. The Tom Hanks-in-“Castaway” look was a bit of a rebellious statement at the beginning, but it has come to embody the mindset he adopts between the lines.
“I enjoy it because it makes me feel competitive,” Blackmon says. “My friends don’t know what kind of person I am on the field. I’m a completely different person, I think, and this look very much reflects how I try to play the game. Focus. Intensity. Competitive desire. That kind of stuff.”
At a rangy 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Blackmon gives off the vibe of a left-handed Jayson Werth. So which outfielder wears it better? Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, who spent five years playing alongside Werth in Washington, gives a slight nod to the Colorado-based werewolf.
“Jayson’s going to be pissed that I’m saying this, but Charlie, for sure,” Desmond says. “I just like the mullet. I mean, Jayson started it. He laid the groundwork for everyone with the beards, no doubt. But Charlie wears his really well. He’s got a little more flow to his too. He’s a center fielder who’s diving all over the place.”
Rockies fans celebrate Blackmon’s hustle during home games when he steps in the batter’s box to the accompaniment of the 1985 pop single “Your Love” by The Outfield. As the refrain “I don’t want to lose your love tonight” blares over the public address system, the volume goes down and the home crowd belts out the word “Tonight!” in unison. It’s the most interactive fan bonding experience at Coors Field since Rockies fans were doing the Troy Tulowitzki “Tulo” chant.
Myron and Ellen Blackmon have enjoyed watching the spectacle while taking a sabbatical from their lives in Georgia. They’ve spent April and May in Denver and plan to return to watch the Rockies during the stretch drive and (they hope) the playoffs.
Having seen the obstacles that Blackmon overcame to reach this point, his parents are especially proud of his work ethic, his grounded reaction to success and his ability to inspire and energize his teammates. They’re even on board with the long hair and that voluminous, mountain-man beard.
“The only person in our family who doesn’t like it is Charlie’s grandmother — Ellen’s mom,” Myron said. “She’s never going to get there. But everybody else has figured out, ‘Oh well. That’s kind of his trademark — his brand.’ That’s his personality, and it works really well in Colorado.
“It’s still Charlie under there.”