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Blackmon finding his niche at Tech

Four years removed from his days as a star at North Gwinnett High School, Charlie Blackmon's college baseball career hasn't progressed as he expected it to.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, however.

Drafted out of high school by the Florida Marlins - and then after two seasons at Young Harris College by the Boston Red Sox - as a pitcher, the former Bulldog standout has carved a new niche for himself as a position player at Georgia Tech.

In fact, as the Yellow Jackets prepare for the annual Spring Classic charity game against archrival and eighth-ranked Georgia tonight at Turner Field, Blackmon has been perhaps their most pleasant surprise as their starting rightfielder.

And he's arguably been Tech's most valuable player this season, leading the 25th-ranked Jackets (36-15) in batting average (.381), hits (77), runs scored (57) and on-base percentage (.460), and ranking second in total bases (119) and stolen bases (19). He also ranks in the top five in doubles (12), home runs (8) and RBIs (37).

"He's made a big difference in our team," Tech coach Danny Hall said of Blackmon. "We wouldn't be where we are without him. ... It's sad we didn't discover him earlier."

Not bad for someone who had barely picked up a bat in more than three years heading into last summer.

"I was a pitcher all through junior college ball, though I'd hit about half my sophomore year," Blackmon said. "Last year when I got to Tech, all I did was pitch, and I didn't do much of that. I took a medical redshirt because of tendinitis.

"I was sick of not playing, and I asked (Hall) when I left to play summer ball if it was OK with him if I tried to hit in summer ball. I don't think he took it seriously."

If Hall didn't take Blackmon's request seriously then, he certainly did after the 6-foot-3, 201-pound left-hander hit .318 using a wood bat to lead the Colleyville Lone Stars of the Texas College League last summer.

And if that performance didn't convince Hall, then perhaps the call he received from Lone Stars manager Rusty Greer - a former major leaguer with the Texas Rangers - did.

"I'd kind of watched and tracked him a little," Hall said. "But it was the phone call from Rusty Greer, whom I'd never spoken to and never even met before (that proved decisive). In fact, he got my number from (former Tech star and Atlanta Braves slugger) Mark Teixeira.

"He said, 'I don't want to tell you what to do, but (Blackmon) was probably the best hitter in the league.' I stopped him right there and told him that was good enough for me, and it didn't take long in fall practice to see Rusty Greer was right."

Still, Blackmon - unaware of Greer's call - wasn't sure how Hall would react to his summer.

"When I came back, I was a little concerned how my conversation with (Hall) would go," he said.

But Hall was already convinced, and Blackmon has made the most of that chance.

In the process, he's evoked visions of a former Yellow Jacket who made an unexpected and successful transition from the pitching mound to the batting order.

Recruited as a pitcher out of Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Jeff Kindel made the switch back to the outfield and first base after his sophomore season.

And he transformed into a two-time, second-team All-ACC selection who was eventually drafted by the Colorado Rockies after helping Tech to the 2006 College World Series. He has since progressed two levels in the Rockies' minor league system and is playing with the Tulsa Drillers in the Class AA Texas League.

"They are similar," Hall said of the comparison between Blackmon and Kindel. "They both had some adversity to overcome. With Kindel, it was more a mental block. Charlie's (adversity) stemmed from an arm injury after he was drafted that kept him from pitching like he could."

To be sure, Blackmon has heard Jeff Kindel's name quite a bit this spring.

"Every time I tell my story, I hear about how I'm the next Jeff Kindel," Blackmon joked. "I'm a little sick of hearing that, but he was a great player. So, I guess being compared to him is pretty good."

Blackmon also wouldn't mind if he followed Kindel's lead into pro ball, though he's not exactly sure when he might try.

He has one more year of eligibility at Tech if he chooses to use it.

However, he is also eligible for the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, in which he was drafted in the 28th round by Florida in 2004 and in the 20th round by Boston the following year.

"Either scenario wouldn't be bad," Blackmon said.

So, while tonight might not be the last time Blackmon plays at Turner Field, his mind is set more on the present and helping the Jackets in their drive to return to the NCAA Tournament.

"I'd be glad to have a chance to maybe play at Turner Field again some day," Blackmon said. "But right now, I'm just trying to help win games at Georgia Tech.

"I feel like we can determine our own fate, and the last couple of weeks, we're playing well. It seems like every game, can determine where we go, what seed we are and everything."