Oakland — When Paul Blackburn made his major-league debut on Saturday afternoon, there were some 400 family members and friends scattered around the Coliseum.
Fortunately for Blackburn, who was born in Antioch, raised in Oakley and schooled at Heritage High School in Brentwood, the right-hander didn’t have to shell out for all 400 seats.
“I left 12 [tickets]. That was it,” Blackburn explained. “For family and stuff.”
Originally selected by the Chicago Cubs with the No. 56 overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, the rookie starter now has the chance to make his name with a local club.
The 23-year-old’s path to the majors first took a turn toward the Coliseum last July when the Cubs sent the pitcher to the Seattle Mariners. Less than four months later, the M’s traded Blackburn to Oakland, with Danny Valencia heading in the opposite direction.
Blackburn, who stands 6-foot-1 and wears a reddish beard, remembers his phone buzzing to life on the morning of Nov. 12. Jerry Dipoto, the general manager of the Mariners, was on the other end.
“It was fairly early,” Blackburn recalled. “I woke up and he told me I was traded. It was just kind of cool being from here, coming to kind of a hometown team. It was really cool.”
As a kid, Blackburn leaned more to the orange and black side when it came to Bay Area baseball fandom.
“I was a Giants, Niners, Warriors fan growing up,” Blackburn admitted as he stood in front of his locker in the Coliseum clubhouse on Monday, his grey A’s shirt drenched in sweat following an early afternoon workout.
“But I feel like I came to more A’s games than Giants games just because most of my friends were A’s fans,” Blackburn added.
His manager Bob Melvin can appreciate just what it’s like for Blackburn to rise to the majors in his home market. Back in 1986, Melvin — who hails from Palo Alto — was a 24-year-old catcher for the Giants.
“It’s a pain,” Melvin said when advised that Blackburn had some 400 supporters on hand for his debut.
“It’s great when things are well and not so great when things aren’t,” Melvin continued. “But at some point in time you find a balance and you have to say, ‘No.’ You’re not a ticket broker, but certainly you’re first time out, it’s exciting, everyone wants to be part of it.”
The sizeable contingent of family and friends didn’t have an adverse affects on Blackburn during his debut against the Atlanta Braves — far from it. Blackburn spun six innings of three-hit ball, allowing just one unearned run.
“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I was going to be leading up to it,” Blackburn said. “But yeah, I just tried to keep all my emotions under control.”
With a four-seam fastball that hovered around 90 mph in his first start, Blackburn was hardly overpowering against the Braves. He never has been — even as he’s enjoyed success at every step on the minor-league ladder, sporting a 3.21 ERA in seven stops since the Cubs drafted him.
“[It’s all about] location, really,” Blackburn said when asked to explain the key his game.
“I’d say keeping hitters off balance and just locating my pitches,” Blackburn said. “That’s kind of what I really focus on is just not trying to give in and staying within myself, knowing what I can and can’t do.”
Blackburn’s first outing so intrigued the club’s brass that the A’s jettisoned the struggling Jesse Hahn to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in order to get another look at the one-time Cubs prospect.
Blackburn was the 11th pitcher to draw a start for the A’s during a season in which chaos has beset the rotation. Six starters have spent at least one spell on the disabled list — the number rises to seven counting Chris Bassitt who has yet to even pitch.
Amidst that turmoil, a sooner-than-expected opportunity has arise for Blackburn. Now, the young starter has at least one more outing to prove he deserves to stick around. And he’ll have the chance to do so in front of his legion of 400 fans.
“When you do pitch at home or play at home, you have to find a balance and [figure out] how much distraction you want from that as far as tickets and so forth and concentrating on what is your job, Melvin explained. “So, he’ll find that balance.”