When you’ve been in the majors, it’s a little tough to get pumped up for games in AAA. When you’ve got 8 years of service time in the majors, and you’ve gotten used to the pressure in every at bat and tens of thousands of fans hanging on everything you do, you need something more than just the game to get yourself as mentally present as you are in the big leagues.
Gregor Blanco has a strategy, and Gregor Blanco has his family.
“I always try to say to myself, competition. Compete,” he said on Sunday. For three weeks, he had been putting all his mental energy into just when the game is going on. “You just gotta focus three hours a day actually, try to do the best and see what happens.” Three weeks earlier, on July 21, he was hitting .223/.305/.362 in Sacramento; since, he’s hit .295/.404/.364.
But what gives Blanco the strength to keep going during the other 21 hours of every day? “My family, my wife, my three kids,” he said. “I always try to think about my kids. I think they are my strength.” And surprisingly, they feel great about Sacramento. “My kids love it. They actually say, “‘We like it more better here than San Francisco.’”
And getting that strength from his family means that Blanco can be the teammate he wants to be. Because as hard as it is to imagine Gregor Blanco sullenly shutting down in the clubhouse, it’s easy to imagine any longtime major leaguer sent down to AAA for the first time in seven years being so mired in a haze of bitterness or self-doubt that he isn’t there for his teammates.
But not Blanco. “I think it’s really important for me to help any guy that I can,” he said, and as the veteran in the clubhouse, that means teaching guys about the mental side of baseball. It’s all about routines, and work ethic, and respecting the game, and helping build the next generation of Giants stars. When it comes to that mentor role, “I’ve always loved the challenge,” and he thinks conquering that challenge not only helps his teammate, but also helps him become a better player.
Taking time for teammates isn’t just a minor league thing either. Earlier this year, when he was in the majors, Blanco (along with Pablo Sandoval) helped Brandon Crawford fix his swing. The adjustments Crawford made there propelled him to a hot couple months that ensured he’d start the All-Star Game this year.
Of course, that’s not the most famous time Gregor Blanco helped a teammate out. Here, let’s take a look at a GIF:
When Jordan Schafer hit that ball to deep right-center leading off the 7th inning of Matt Cain’s perfect game, Blanco might have been the only person in the park who thought he was going to catch it, and he basically did it through sheer force of will. “I’m telling you, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “There’s a lot of things in life, if you really want them, it’s gonna happen. In that moment, I was like, there’s no way this ball’s gonna drop.”
Like so many Giants, Blanco left for a little while — in his case to the Diamondbacks for 2017 — and returned to the organization. The reasons why go beyond the field. “I feel the honesty. They create a family,” he said. “It’s a tradition of winning, developing players to be better human beings, better [family men]. It’s just not about baseball,” which he appreciates, because Gregor Blanco is all about family.
But the Giants also develop players to be winners, which suits Blanco just fine. “Growing up, I’ve always been a winner. I remember growing up, [when] I lost, with my friends in the yard, in the backyard and stuff like that, I took off everything. The glove, the bat, oh, we’re done.”
And in his first stint with the team, he did a lot of winning. Blanco counts his two World Series championships as his proudest accomplishment, with 2014 being particularly special because it was his dream as a kid in Venezuela to lead off and play center field in Game 7 of the World Series. He got to live that dream with the Giants, and has a ring to show for it.
It used to be that Blanco got back to Venezuela a little more often. For seven years, he played winter ball there in the offseason. His team was the Tiburones de La Guaira — “Tiburón” is Spanish for shark, which is where the shark half of his White Shark nickname comes from — and the experience was important to him. He was MVP of the league in the offseason before he signed before the Giants, and playing there always helped him prepare for the season in the US, especially important now that he’s only been getting about 250 at bats a year.
But with his country mired in a years-long political and economic crisis, he just can’t go back. And it all comes back to family. “I have an 8 year old kid and a 2 year old daughter here, so it’s really hard for me to actually go over there” he said. “The water and supplies [are] really bad. If you get sick, they’re not gonna have anything. The food, everything’s messed up. I just don’t want to take that risk for them.”
But he thinks about home every day. When he’s playing baseball, he has to try to put it to the side, but his dad is in Venezuela, and his brothers, and his oldest son. “It’s tough for me to see him over there,” Blanco said. “He’s okay, but I know his future there is not gonna be what he could do if he’s here.”
So when Blanco’s done with intensely focusing on baseball for three hours a day, he goes back to his wife and two younger kids in Sacramento, and thinks about his older one back home. Because in the end, for Gregor Blanco, it’s all about family.