June 4, 2010
Nick Blackburn is a right-handed pitcher and a right-handed guitar player. The Twins hurler has no aspirations of becoming a rock star—he admits to being a far better craftsman with a baseball in his hand than a guitar pick—but he loves to play. Blackburn sat down with Baseball Prospectus to talk about musical chops, walk-up songs, and guitar-wielding teammates.
David Laurila: You play the guitar, as do a few other Twins pitchers. Is there a connection there?
Nick Blackburn: There’s plenty of down time as a starting pitcher, but I guess that the majority of the guys on the team who play the guitar are relievers, so I suppose it really could just be a coincidence. But while I wouldn’t really say there’s anything about pitchers playing the guitar, specifically, when you think about who plays, there are guys like [Barry] Zito, so maybe it does have something to do with the down time. Or maybe it’s something in our minds where we’re wired a little differently than position players? It could have something to do with that.
DL: Standing on the mound, pitchers are front and center on the main stage. Is there anything analogous there?
NB: That’s possibly true, but I can tell you one thing, I would not want to get up in front of people and play the guitar. I get nervous if there is one more person in the room when I’m playing the guitar. It’s really just something that I’ve picked up over the years, and that I enjoy trying to do better.
DL: It that mostly a matter of confidence level?
NB: Absolutely, and that goes for a lot of things. My wife gives me a hard time because I get nervous having to talk in front of people. Like I said, playing the guitar in front of people isn’t an easy thing for me to do and my wife gives me a hard time, because [on the mound] I’m in front of 30,000 people, and they’re all staring at me, but that’s completely different. I’m doing something I’m comfortable with and something that feels natural to me. It plays a lot different than if I was trying to play the guitar in front of 30,000 people. There’s no telling what kind of train wreck I’d be.
DL: Are pitching and playing the guitar similar in any way?
NB: For me, I wouldn’t say so. One thing I enjoy about playing the guitar is that it gets me completely away from baseball. I can go home and kill an hour or two; I can sit down and pull out the guitar and mess around. I might not even be learning anything new, I might just be doing stuff as I go. It’s been something, over the last couple of years, that helps me get away from the game. It clears my mind and just lets me focus on that. It gives me a chance to rest my mind a little bit.
DL: Lenny DiNardo once compared Greg Maddux throwing four different fastballs on the same quadrant of the plate to Joey Santiago, of the Pixies, playing similar, yet unique, guitar riffs. Does that make sense to you?
NB: It does make sense. There’s a lot of stuff that can be done on the guitar in many, many spots. You can make the same notes with different strings and different frets, and make the same sound. It’s very true, and when you have a guy like Maddux that can do stuff like that, it’s special. It comes natural to him. It’s like any of those people who have been playing the guitar since they were 3 or 4 years old—they can do that stuff, too. You can give them a guitar and tell them to make something up, and it will sound like it’s something they’ve been playing for 30 years. It’s very impressive and people who do, naturally, have the ability to do that just amaze me.
DL: Does playing the guitar impact your pitching arm or fingers in any way?
NB: No, not at all. At the beginning I had calluses on my fingertips and they would get real sore. You hear people say that they played until their fingers bled and it’s almost true because of the way it feels, the way the strings are digging into your skin. The first couple of weeks are pretty painful, but then they callus over and everything is fine. I don’t feel it in my arm, I don’t feel it in my fingers, and I think that if I did, I wouldn’t be playing the guitar.
DL: What about in regards to feel?
NB: They’re similar in that you do need to have a good feel for them. You have to have a good feel for where you’re at on a baseball and you have to have a good feel for where you’re at with a guitar. Especially with some of the faster-picking songs, you have to know exactly where your hands are, and where your fingertips are, and it’s the same with baseball. For me to throw a slider, I have to know where I am on the baseball—or to go from a sinker to a changeup and all that. But for me, since I throw right-handed and play the guitar right-handed, I’m using my left hand, mainly, on the fret board. I have tried playing with my right hand working the frets, but it was miserable. I was unbelievably uncoordinated trying to do that.
DL: Relatively speaking, have pitching and the guitar come pretty naturally, or have you had to really work at them?
NB: I would say they both take a lot of work. Over the years, I’ve developed the pitches that I have now, but when I first started throwing sinkers they didn’t really sink. I used to just be a four-seam pitcher, but over the last five or six years I’ve taught myself how to make a ball move and what makes a ball move. The same with a guitar. I’ve been playing the guitar for four or five years and I’m just now getting to the point where I can do things on my own and realize how the guitar works. I can make stuff up as I go a little bit. But, like I said, I’m not that great at the guitar, I’m just kind of learning and figuring out how the thing works.
DL: Hitters obviously have walk-up songs. Do you pitch any differently to a heavy metal guy than to a country guy?
NB: No, but if anything, I’d say that guys listening to country are a little more intimidating to me because it almost puts off more of a vibe that they don’t care too much. I mean, they’re just out there having a good time and having fun, and those are usually the guys who are doing more damage than the guys who are ready to tear the cover off the ball and are maybe pressing a little too much and overdoing it.
DL: Conversely, do musical tastes say anything about pitching styles?
NB: Not really. When I’m out there pitching, I’m just focused on baseball, plus my taste in music changes from time to time. There are streaks when I’ll listen to country only and there are streaks where I’ll listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and bands like Pearl Jam. I’m anywhere from the ‘90s, all the way back to the ‘60s. I kind of mix it up, depending on the mood. But I do try to keep the two separated, so I think that once I’m listening, or once I’m playing the guitar, it’s kind of like a mental escape.
DL: Do you think that your guitar-playing teammates would answer these questions much differently than you are?
NB: [Brian] Duensing and [Matt] Guerrier? I’m sure they have something different, because everyone is a little different. But it’s tough to say; it really is tough to say. Each guy has his own motive for wanting to learn how to play the guitar and each guy thinks differently than I do, so I would say that the chances of them answering differently would be pretty good.
DL: While musical tastes may not correlate to hitting and pitching styles, what about what they say about who someone is off the field?
NB: You can kind of tell the type of person, like I don’t want to play country music; I want to play old-school rock, kind of the more laid-back stuff. A guy like Duensing... I don’t know how to explain him. He wants to play more pop-type music. So I guess that you kind of can get a reading of the type of person someone is by what they play. Jon Rauch is trying to learn to play the guitar now and he’s interested in learning how to play Metallica and all that stuff. He’s kind of a guy that… it doesn’t surprise me that he wants to play that kind of stuff. I’m a more of a laid-back type of guy that wants to play a more laid-back type of music, so I think you can get a read of people by what they like to listen to and what they want to play.
DL: Jon Rauch would have quite the stage presence, it would seem.
NB: Rauch? Yeah, he’s a pretty large guy. A large guy with a lot of tattoos.
DL: Much like a lot of rock stars wish they were professional athletes, professional athletes often wish they were rock stars. Do you fit into that category?
NB: Yeah, probably so and I think that’s something that goes for everybody. Everyone in the world would like to be doing something else. But I think that a professional athlete has a small taste of the rock star life, and vice versa. We all want to experience it. But I’ll tell you this much: I wouldn’t be making too money trying to be a rock star.