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Mike Wise

The First Is Foremost

By Mike Wise
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page D09


The quiet, bashful rookie from San Juan de la Manguana, Dominican Republic, pulled the black duffel bag from the top storage space in his cubicle. Tony Blanco palmed the scuffed Rawlings baseball, removing it from a side compartment, displaying it as if it were a princess-cut diamond.

"I feel good," Blanco said, in broken English. "My first hit in the big leagues. I'm going to call all my family today. To give them the news."

It was late Friday night in South Florida, in the middle of the losers' clubhouse, underneath the stands of Dolphins Stadium. The evening and the game belonged to Dontrelle Willis, who dominated the Washington Nationals, pitching a shutout while allowing only five hits. When a left-hander masters major league hitters and gives up no runs like Willis it is often written, "he scattered five meaningless hits."

What a wrong assumption that would have been on Friday night. When Blanco swung and connected off Willis with one out in the top of the ninth inning of a 9-0 loss, a 23-year-old rookie had his own little piece of history. When Blanco singled through the hole at shortstop, he gained acceptance into a club he has wanted to be a part of since boyhood.

"He was so worried about not getting a hit I was talking to him on the bench before the game," said Terrmel Sledge, a rookie just a year ago. "I told him, 'You're fine. It took me 20-something at-bats to get my first hit.' I know the feeling of waiting. Believe me."

Sledge was asked whom he got his first hit off. "Uh, I think it was Braden Looper," he said. Ryan Church, his teammate seated next to him, laughed. "You know who he is, come on," Church said.

Everyone in baseball remembers who he got his first hit off.

"To get it off this guy, that's very good," Blanco said. "He was very hard to hit for us."

Blanco was 0 for 2 with two strikeouts when he stepped to the plate against Willis. Nationals Manager Frank Robinson inserted Blanco as a pinch hitter for the third time this season. In his first major league bat against Philadelphia on Opening Day, Blanco battled but struck out on a 3-2 pitch.

On Monday, he was ecstatic about just coming to the plate and being given the green light by bench coach Eddie Rodriguez. "I was not pressured," Blanco said. "I was happy. That's my dream come true. Find a good pitch and swing. Ever since I've been growing up in Dominican Republic, I think of that moment."

The kid was so happy he propped up the 34-inch, 32-ounce, maplewood bat he struck out with next to his locker. "This is the one, right here," he said, fingering the knob gently. Blanco treasured it like Mark McGwire treasured the wood that struck his 70th home run of the 1998 season. For some players, just stepping up to the plate is an accomplishment. For a player like Tony Blanco, a first at-bat -- a first hit -- is the confirmation of his abilities to play at this level.

When another franchise does not believe in you, that first hit means everything. Blanco was once voted by Baseball America as No. 2 prospect in the Boston Red Sox' system. That was 2002, before minor league stops in Lowell, Augusta, Sarasota and Potomac.

In December, the Cincinnati Reds did not put him on the 40-man roster and risked losing Blanco in the Rule 5 draft. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden took a chance on Blanco in the draft, which essentially means he's not protected by another team. In order for the Nationals to keep him, Blanco has to be kept on the roster for the entire season. If not, he would be offered back to Cincinnati. Washington cannot put Blanco back in the minors to develop him, so it's succeed or bust.

"I was surprised when Washington pick me, but I was happy," Blanco said. He has become the quintessential rookie, lugging teammates' bats around, grabbing the veterans coffee, snacks, "whatever they ask for," Sledge said. On Thursday in Philadelphia, Blanco had 30 Coors Light 12-ounce bottles stacked on top of each other in a paper bag.

"For you?" he was asked.

"No, I have to buy them for all the veterans and other players," Blanco said. "It is part of my job. I pass them out to everybody after the game."

"There is not really bad hazing," Sledge said. "Except at the end of the season. Then, like all rookies on every team, he has to dress up like the veterans want him to. It could be a feminine outfit. It could be a clown. He doesn't really have a choice. Last year, I had to dress up as a clown."

Blanco takes it in stride. "Hey, I'm in the major leagues. I cannot complain, you know?"

In the "Field of Dreams" movie, the Moonlight Graham character, played by Burt Lancaster, dreams of facing a major league pitcher for once in his life. In one of the movie's more touching moments, he gets the chance, hitting a sacrifice fly, earning the praise of some of the game's greats as he jogs back to the dugout. Blanco got the same treatment on Friday night, several of his teammates quietly coming over to congratulate him for the feat.

"It's a big deal, your first hit," Brad Wilkerson said. "I remember mine. I got it off Tim Wakefield. It was a real big deal because I was 0 for 11 at the time. My parents came up from Kentucky to Montreal for the weekend and they had to stay an extra day until I got it." Wilkerson smiled at the memory. "I'm glad for him," he said of Blanco. "It's a good thing for him."

The rookie from the Dominican Republic grabbed his cell phone, got dressed and ate quickly. He was eager to call family back home. Before he left, he pulled the baseball from his bag and asked a reporter to sign the ball.

"No, someone else should do that," I said. "That's a very special ball."

"No, you sign it," Blanco said. "You be the first one. You write, 'First hit.' "

"First Hit, 4/8/05." That's what the ball Tony Blanco hit off Dontrelle Willis reads.

"Maybe this will wind up in the Hall of Fame," I said, half-embarrassed but more honored than anything.

"You never know, man," Blanco said. "Good things are happening now."

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