AMID THE FULL force of winter, the hot air surrounding the Dave Winfield/Kirby Puckett baseball Hall of Fame double play felt like a summer breeze. But even more heated than last month's home-team hypefest was the local sideshow provided by Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven.
When the Hall released its latest ballot, longtime major leaguer Blyleven opined that while Winfield was worthy of admission in his first year of eligibility, the same was not true of Puckett. "Kirby put up good numbers in a short period of time and was a mainstay, but the Hall is about numbers and where he ranks," the former pitcher told the Star Tribune's Judd Zulgad on December 1.
Six weeks later Puckett and Winfield were in on their first try, while Blyleven, in his fourth year of eligibility, was still out, having garnered only 121 ballots, a mere 31 more than last time around. (Hall of Fame ballots are cast by the 500 or so members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who've been part of that august body for at least ten years. Each writer is permitted to designate up to ten players; in order to enter the Hall, a player must be named on 75 percent of the ballots.) "To see my numbers increase like that, I think it's a joke," Blyleven griped to Strib scribe Jim Souhan. "Now I'm supposed to go out and party? I wish they would just end it, give me less than five percent," he went on, referring to the requirement that a player be named on at least that many ballots in order to be considered the following year.
Blyleven did briefly interrupt his rant to tip his cap to Puckett. He also paid tribute to both inductees in the weekly column he pens for the Twins and WCCO-TV (Channel 4). "I thought that Kirby would make the Hall of Fame and I was wrong about him not being a first-year-ballot inductee," he wrote in his January 22 dispatch (still available for perusal at www.twins.mlb.com). "I admit I was wrong. If I were playing golf I would use a mulligan, because Kirby is a great ambassador for the game. My hat goes off to all the writers who voted for him."
The lion's share of Blyleven's 1,200-word paean is devoted to nostalgic memories of the author's experiences on the field with Winfield and Puckett. The Puckett vignette is particularly touching: The year is 1984. Puckett is a "skinny" rookie center fielder. Blyleven, a member of the Cleveland Indians, is making his last start of the season, hoping to win his 19th game that year and--even more important to him--finish tops in the league in earned run average. In the final inning Puckett slams a triple and later scores, marring the pitcher's big day. "You should have seen this guy run around the bases," Blyleven writes. "I was hoping he would trip! ...I completed the game for my 19th win, but lost the ERA title. Still today, every time I see Kirby, I think of that at bat."
Sounding more than a little abashed, Blyleven tells Off Beat that he intended the column as an apology to Puckett. He complains that the headline on Zulgad's Strib story--"If Blyleven has a vote: Winfield (yes), Puckett (no)"--was misleading. "I was making the point that you have to look at the history of the game and the way the writers vote," he explains, mentioning stars such as Don Sutton and Tony Perez, who waited years to get in. "But I thought Kirby would get in eventually because everybody loves him." (Did Blyleven really mean it when he said he wants to be removed from future ballots? "No, of course not," he says. "That was me venting.") After he read the Zulgad headline, Blyleven says, he tried to reach Puckett by phone but failed to hook up, and eventually resorted to the online apology. He still hasn't heard back from his onetime teammate, however. "There's nothing more I can do," the ex-hurler laments. "If there's hard feelings between me and Kirby, I don't think there's anything I can do about it."