King of the Hill

Bert Blyleven: Clown, color man -- and the best eligible pitcher who's not in the Hall of Fame

To fully appreciate how much Bert Blyleven cherishes his place in the history of the game of baseball, you have to see the balls. There are about 330 of them, regulation horsehide, individually mounted on little stands and arrayed in tiered rows in a huge glass display case along the wall behind the television and the trophies.

Most of them are slightly scuffed or stained by dirt and grass. A few bear the signature of a famous player: Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Rod Carew. But the vast majority are actual game balls from each and every one of Blyleven's 292 wins as a pitcher (counting the five he earned in the postseason). Blyleven himself painstakingly inscribed them (usually that very evening) with the number of the victory and the relevant date, score, opponent, and pitching line. Other balls similarly mark the occasion of his 1,000th, 2,000th and 3,000th strikeout.

It's the kind of grand display that makes an observer think of epic achievements, and the 125-year-plus sweep of the sport, and the Hall of Fame, of which Blyleven is not a member, though he wishes more than anything that he were.

Blyleven's Fort Myers home is a riot of memorabilia, presenting a lively testimonial to his 22 years as a major-league pitcher. Time-capsule photos, posters, and newspaper and magazine covers completely coat the walls of his study. There's a nice shot of "the Dutchman" standing tall and resplendent on the mound, his thick, reddish beard set against the black and canary-yellow colors of his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. There's Blyleven staring out from beneath a Sporting News cover headline that asks, "Whatever Happened to the Workhorse Pitcher?"

It's yet another sunny weekend afternoon, ordered up by the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. Blyleven, who turned 54 on Wednesday, keeps his year-round home in a gated community here, and uses it as a home base to cover Twins spring training as a color commentator for Fox Sports. He's an unstintingly gracious host, leading a visitor from room to room of this living baseball shrine. (The Hummer in the driveway bears the license plate BLY KOS, baseball code for "Blyleven strikeouts.")

Out in the living room, a pair of full-sized World Series trophies occupies a place of honor on top of the wide-screen television. "In 1979, they gave us the opportunity to buy one, the original one. So I bought one," Blyleven says. "But in 1987, Peter Ueberroth was the commissioner and he said, 'We're only making two [original-sized trophies]. The players can buy the smaller version.' Well, I said, 'Bullshit,'" Blyleven cackles.

He describes the Minnesota Twins' first-ever series championship in '87 as his favorite year in baseball, and the memory of it, plus the mischief of bucking the notoriously pompous Ueberroth, animates him with childish glee. "I had to write a letter to the American League offices, and I had to send pictures of the original-sized one I already had from '79. So they made this up especially for me. Kind of neat, isn't it?"

For all the horsehide and hardware Blyleven has assembled in his home, the ultimate validation of his career will only occur when a bronze bust of his likeness is cast and displayed at the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. For that to happen, at least 75 percent of the voting members from the Baseball Writers Association of America must deem him worthy of induction into the Hall, regarded as the most hallowed honor in American sports.

After eight years of eligibility, however, Blyleven has never received more than 41 percent of the vote. And his exclusion has become one of the game's more vexing mysteries and compelling barstool debates.

Blyleven's qualifications, though framed in the wonky language of baseball stats, are long and seemingly undeniable. Of all the pitchers to take the mound in the history of the major leagues, only four struck out more batters than the 3,701 Blyleven whiffed. Every one of the other nine eligible pitchers who struck out at least 3,000 batters is in the Hall of Fame. When it comes to shutouts, Blyleven ranks ninth all-time, with 60. Every one of the other 19 pitchers with at least 50 shutouts is enshrined in Cooperstown.

The primary argument against Blyleven is that he never had a "high peak," meaning that his numbers were amassed through longevity rather than the sort of spectacular performance that marks a special talent. Detractors point out that the Dutchman (so named because he was born in Holland) won 20 games in a season just once in his 22-year career, and never captured the Cy Young Award, given annually to the best pitchers from the American and National Leagues.

But a more thorough examination of the statistics reveals Blyleven to be phenomenally, almost freakishly, unlucky. After his first five years in the league with Minnesota, his win-loss record was a pedestrian 80-76, despite his superb earned run average of 2.76. That's because the Twins scored only 11 total runs in the 9 losses he suffered in his rookie year of 1970, and a ridiculous 18 total runs in his 15 losses the following season. Even a mediocre offensive output that year could have boosted his win total from 16 to 20. Indeed, with a little luck (or another hitter or two in Minnesota) Blyleven could have bagged 20 victories 4 years in a row during the early '70s.

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