RIP to Ron Blazier, a Pennsylvania native who pitched for the Phillies for two seasons before an elbow injury curtailed his career. He died unexpectedly at his home in Bellwood, Pa., on December 4. He was 50 years old. Blazier pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996 and ’97.
Ronald Patrick Blazier was born on July 30, 1971, in Altoona, Pa. He stood 6-foot-4 as a junior at Bellwood-Antis High School — and would eventually reach 6-foot-6 — which made him a natural for the school’s basketball team. In 1988, he made the second team of the Juniata Valley Boys Basketball League all-star team. During his high school career, he scored more than 800 points — 500 in his senior year alone — and led the Blue Devils to two straight Juniata Valley League titles.
Blazier’s high school work as a pitcher was impressive as well. In his senior season he struck out 114 batters, won 10 games and posted an ERA of 0.79. He was an unpolished baseball player, to the point that he went undrafted when he graduated in 1989. But those who watched him pitch in Pennsylvania saw the potential.
“Ronny was a long shot,” said Jay Perry, a Phillies scout and baseball coach at Altoona Area High School. “But he was throwing really hard in high school, close to 90, and eventually, he got up to 92-94.” Perry talked to Ken Hultzapple, the Phillies regional scouting supervisor, and he saw the same potential in Blazier. The team signed the pitcher after he attended a couple of tryout camps.
“He was a big, strong, green kid who had a good arm and was a competitor. He had a lot of improvement to do,” Hultzapple said. “He was coachable, and he listened well and did what they told him. His control was good, and it got better every year.”
Blazier spent five seasons in various Class-A or Rookie-level teams, honing his form. His first couple of seasons — the Princeton Patriots in 1990 and Batavia Clippers in 1991 — were a mixed bag. He had ERAs around 4.50 and gave up a high amount of hits and home runs. However, his control remained excellent, and his strikeout totals were excellent. He had his first great season for the Spartanburg Phillies of the Sally League in 1992, going 14-7 with a 2.65 ERA. His secondary pitches, like his curve and changeup, were greatly improved, and he allowed just 10 home runs and 32 walks in 159-2/3 innings while striking out 149.
Blazier spent all of 1993 and ’94 pitching for the Clearwater Phillies of the Florida State League. He won 9 games in ’93 and was named the organization’s pitcher of the month in August, with a 4-1 record and 2.29 ERA. Clearwater reached the FSL Championship Series against St. Lucie, and Blazier won the deciding game with a 7 shutout innings. He quickly found out that being well over 6 feet tall makes you an easy target for champagne spray when your team wins a league championship. “All I wanted to do was end up on a good note,” he said in the post-game celebration. “There’s no better way than this. It is unbelievable.”
After winning 13 games for Clearwater in 1994 and being named the Phillies minor-league Pitcher of the Year, Blazier was promoted up to Double-A. The Phillies decided to convert him into a full-time reliever for the first time in his pro career. He took to it well. “It seemed like it clicked right from the beginning,” he later said. “If you had a bad game as a reliever, you got right back in there the next day instead of having to wait a week.”
The Reading Phillies won the Eastern League championship in 1995, which meant more champagne showers for Blazier. He earned them, too. In 56 games as a long reliever, he had a 4-5 record and 3.29 ERA in 106-2/3 innings pitched. He struck out 102 batters and walked just 31 (including 7 intentional walks). He appeared in five of Reading’s eight postseason games and had some excellent outings. In the championships series against New Haven, he worked 1-2/3 innings of Game Four and struck out all five batters he faced. He departed with a 7-7 tie, but New Haven won that game when Angel Echevarria hit a 2-run homer to break the tie. However, Reading won the next game and the championship by a score of 13-2. Blazier relieved starter Matt Beech and worked 1-1/3 scoreless innings to pick up the win.
Blazier started the 1996 season with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, and he showed some success as a closer. The Phillies brought him to the major leagues on May 28, and three days later he made his debut in Philadelphia against the San Diego Padres. He threw 1-2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 2. Manager Jim Fregosi didn’t hesitate to use Blazier frequently, and the rookie didn’t disappoint. Through his first dozen major-league games, he picked up 2 wins and had a 2.29 ERA. His first win involved a scoreless inning against Colorado on June 22, fanning Quinton McCracken and Ellis Burks. The second win was one of the best performances of his MLB career. He relieved Curt Schilling in the fifth inning on the July 4 game against the Florida Marlins, with two runners on base. Blazier worked out of that jam and then threw two more scoreless innings while the Phillies held onto their lead to win 8-5.
“I’m very happy with the kind of job he’s done,” said Fregosi. “He doesn’t back off when he’s used in tough situations. I’m really proud of him. He just goes out there and keeps throwing the ball.”
Blazier pitched in a total of 27 games for the Phillies that season, with a 3-1 record and 5.87 ERA. He struck out 25 against 10 walks. It was the Marlins that doomed his ERA. Blazier faced the Fish five times and ended up with an 8.64 ERA, allowing 16 hits and 8 earned runs in 8-1/3 innings — and that included his 2-2/3 scoreless July 4 gem. After the season, Bellwood-Antis High School honored their hero with a Ron Blazier Night in October, which included a ceremony at halftime of a basketball game and a pre-game parade.
Blazier spent 1997 bouncing between the majors and minors. The Phillies sent him to Triple-A on April 20 in between games of a doubleheader in order to activate Game Two starter Mark Portugal. As it happened, Blazier was needed in Game One and threw three shutout innings against Montreal, even though he knew he was being demoted after the game. “He showed me something,” said manager Terry Francona. “He gave us a pretty good effort when he could have mailed it in.”
Blazier returned to the Phillies after a couple of weeks, but his ERA rose over 6.50. The Phillies sent him back to Class-A Clearwater to perfect a split-finger fastball, and the team even brought in split-finger master Bruce Sutter to give some tips. When Blazier returned to the Phillies in mid-August, he was nearly untouchable. Over the course of his final 12 games, Blazier allowed just 2 earned runs, for a 1.15 ERA over 15-2/3 innings. Overall, he was 1-1 with a 5.03 ERA in 36 games for Philadelphia, but his late-season success ended a rough season on a hopeful note.
Blazier went to Venezuela to pitch in the winter, and it was there that he heard a “pop” in his elbow while pitching. the pain persisted into the 1998 training camp, where he was initially diagnosed with tendonitis. In March he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. “Boy, that was a really swell idea to make Blazier throw all those split-finger pitches,” wrote Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin.
After missing the entire 1998 season, Blazier was released by the Phillies in 1999. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles and attempted a comeback through the lower levels of its minor leagues. He made it from Class-A Delmarva to Double-A Bowie. He was hit hard there and was released in August of 1999, with an ERA in Bowie above 7.00. It was his final season in professional baseball.
In his two seasons with the Phillies, he appeared in 63 games, with a 4-2 record and a 5.38 ERA. He had 67 strikeouts and 31 walks in 92 innings, with a WHIP of 1.543. He came to bat 6 times in the majors and had 3 hits for a .500 lifetime batting average. In 9 seasons in the minor leagues, he had a 58-42 record with a 4.16 ERA. His 12 saves with the Red Barons in 1996 were tied for the team lead.
After his baseball career ended, Blazier worked in construction and was employed as a forklift operator at the time of his death. He was inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He is survived by three sons, his mother and two brothers.
For more information: Altoona Mirror