Detroit — There was a time, believe it or not, when Detroit was a baseball hotbed for high-schoolers. But that was the 1970s and early 1980s, and really not at all since.
That's what makes the Werner Blakely story so intriguing.
Last week, Blakely, a shortstop at Detroit Edison, was the fourth-round pick by the Los Angeles Angels, making him the highest-drafted player out of a Detroit high school since Redford St. Mary's right-hander Scott Kamieniecki was selected in the second round by the Tigers in 1982. Only 12 Detroit high-schoolers have been taken in the first four rounds of Major League Baseball's June draft — two in the 1960s, seven in the 1970s, two in the 1980s, and one, now, in the 2020s.
"It means a lot. I hope this can inspire a lot of younger African-American athletes to play baseball," Blakely said Monday afternoon, taking a break from doing some drills at The Corner Ballpark in downtown Detroit. "I grew up just off the Lodge Freeway. I know the things they go through. It's just been a matter of having a good inner circle around me.
"I hope this sparks young African-Americans to play baseball. It's another way to be successful, if they choose to."
Blakely, 18, had committed to Auburn, but he won't be going there. He said he has an agreement in place to sign with the Angels, though the paperwork isn't officially done given all the uncertainty in the world today. Reports say he will receive a $900,000 signing bonus, nearly $400,000 above the pick's slot value.
He then will be off to some sort of instructional league, though when and where is up in the air given baseball still hasn't returned from the COVID-19 pandemic. MLB is working to get its season going, though the minor leagues almost certainly will be canceled in 2020. After MLB gets a deal done on its regular season, it will turn its attention to the minors and instructional leagues.
For now, Blakely remains in Detroit, continuing to embrace his role as a leader on his high school team — they had no season in 2020, but he continued to get his work in, and make sure his teammates did, too, even analyzing videos of their swings; his teammates were with him at The Corner Ballpark on Monday — and also starting a new role as a community mentor.
On Tuesday night, he will address Detroit Police Athletic League youngsters at The Corner Ballpark, as PAL announces the schedule for its upcoming season.
Blakely is a PAL alum, starting with track and field at age 12, and joining the baseball ranks at 13.
"It's exciting having one of our own to be able to get to this level, and still have an opportunity to get to even farther heights," said Robert Jamerson, CEO of Detroit PAL. "It's fun to watch, and it's also inspiring for others, to see someone like him. They then see the opportunity to potentially pave their own way.
"He can inspire the next generation of kids."
Pretty impressive, given Blakely is practically a kid himself. He only turned 18 in February, just as he was gearing up for his final high school season at Edison — where he's been since his sophomore year, choosing the school because of its coach, Mark Brown, also a Detroit PAL coach. He legitimately believed a state championship was possible.
But because of COVID-19, there was no senior season for Blakely and thousands of athletes across the state. He believes if there had been a season, he would've gone even higher than the fourth round, but high-schoolers were considered riskier commodities throughout Major League Baseball during this draft, because scouts couldn't see them in game action.
Blakely had to rely on his previous stats. Last year, he batted .467 with five home runs, 38 RBIs and 44 runs, and never was caught stealing in 16 attempts. He also was a frequent participant in camps and showcases across the nation. At one, in Chicago in February, he met with the Angels' brass in a hotel room. At another, in Florida last summer, he met favorite player, New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter (his favorite team growing up, though, was the Tigers).
Scouts have been all over him for well over a year now, and last year he made history when he was Detroit's first Under Armour baseball All-American.
But early on in his baseball journey, there were plenty of strange looks, an African-American kid from Detroit — and a tall one at that; he's now 6-foot-3 — who wasn't interested in basketball or football, at least not in high school.
"Yeah, of course," said Blakely, who played a year at Southfield A&T before transferring to Edison. "Every time I'd go in a store with my brother, and he's 6-6, people would say, 'You've gotta play basketball.'"
The Blakely brothers would shrug it off, and simply say:
"Nah, we play baseball."
In good company
Detroit Edison shortstop Werner Blakely joined a short list of city high-school players to be selected in the first five rounds of MLB's June draft:
►1st round. Rick Konik, 1B, DET, St. Andrews (1966)
►1. John Mayberry, 1B, HOU, Northwestern (1967)
►1. William Daniels, RHP, OAK, Mackenzie (1971)
►1. Frank Tanana, LHP, CAL, Catholic Central (1971)
►2. Todd Cruz, SS, PHI, Western (1973)
►2. Mike Paciorek, SS, LAD, Redford St. Mary's (1973)
►2. Ernest Young, C, SFG, Denby (1973)
►2. Eddie Williams, C, PHI, Northwestern (1976)
►2. Scott Kamieniecki, RHP, DET, Redford St. Mary's (1982)
►3. John Poloni, LHP, PIT, Lutheran West (1972)
►4. Marc Washington, OF, DET, Northwestern (1982)
►4. Werner Blakely, SS, LAA, Edison (2020)
►5. Mark Gammage, RHP, TEX, Osborn (1979)
►5. Steve Phillips, SS, NYM, De La Salle (1981)
►5. William Holmes, RHP, LAA, Western International (2018)