King of the Hill

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

Then there was 1984, when he won 19 games for Cleveland despite missing at least 4 starts with a broken bone in his right foot, or 1989 when he racked up 17 wins for Anaheim but had 11 other games when he received no decision despite compiling a 2.46 earned run average. There are any number of ways you can tally the games that slipped away, which together would have boosted Blyleven's 287 career victories above the 300-win threshold long regarded as a pitcher's guaranteed ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Lounging on an overstuffed black leather couch with his amiable black mutt Holly blending into the carpet by his feet, Blyleven strains for equanimity when discussing his exclusion. He knows that the writers he's talking about today will vote again next January. "I think the numbers speak for themselves and that is kind of all I can say. The percentage [of Hall of Fame supporters] has kept going up the last four or five years. But getting to 75 percent--that's going to be hard."

Whatever rancor Blyleven feels over the Hall of Fame has been sharpened by the death of his father Joe, who succumbed to Parkinson's disease last October at the age of 78. Like many highly successful sons of men from hardscrabble roots, Blyleven idolized his dad and proclaimed him the dominant influence on his life. It was his fervent desire that Joe be alive to witness his induction ceremony.

Joe and Bert fell in love with baseball at about the same time. Joe was a European soccer fan when he and Bert's mother Jenny emigrated to a two-room house and a small plot of land in Canada. They brought three children and $72. Four years of subsistence farming and two more kids later, Joe found work in Paramount, California, just south of L.A., straightening car bumpers with a metal hammer. Bert, who was six years old by then, remembers being amazed at the convenience of the indoor bathroom at their first apartment in the United States.

Then the family moved again, to Garden Grove in Orange County, where Bert hooked up with peers in Little League and Joe discovered the dulcet majesty of Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett doing Dodger games on the radio.

For a few years, their backyard games of catch were a nightly ritual, until Joe's aching back couldn't handle the strain, even if he sat on a bucket. Besides, Bert was turning into a strapping teenager whose fastball stung Joe's hand no matter how much he padded his glove. So Joe built him a pitcher's mound right behind the horseshoe pit in the backyard, then painted a strike zone on a tarp he hung over a chain link fence. Bert would go out and recycle a bucket of 20 or 30 balls again and again, trying to imitate the great Dodger lefty Sandy Koufax with a "drop" pitch that broke down sharply, or with fastballs like the other Dodger star, Don Drysdale.

He became a prodigy. After playing football as a freshman in high school, he spent the next three autumns running cross-country to build up strength and endurance in his legs. Between his junior and senior years, Twins scout Jesse Flores and ex-Dodger pitcher Ed Roebuck helped him refine his "drop" pitch, which soon evolved into his now-legendary curveball. Drafted right out of high school by the Twins, he went to his first major league camp in the spring of 1970.

"It was 35 years ago but I still vividly remember the first time I saw him," says Clark Griffith, the son of then-Twins owner Calvin Griffith. "It was spring training in Florida. I was walking down the right-field line and he was warming up along the third-base line. I must have been 400 feet away, but I saw him throw that wonderful curveball, the way it broke, and I remember saying out loud, 'God, I hope he's one of ours.'"

 

 

The statistics from Blyleven's initial six-year stint with the Twins look like a misprint in this modern baseball era. There are too many pitches, too many innings, too many games to be believed. Today's coaches closely monitor pitch counts. A cautious approach to a pitcher's workload early in his career is considered shrewd management. In 1973, the 22-year-old Blyleven tossed a whopping 325 innings. Amassing that number means the Twins relied on a four-man rotation (versus the five-man rotation nearly every club deploys today), that Blyleven never missed his turn (40 starts in 162 games), and that he averaged more than eight innings per start. And while the 1973 campaign was the most industrious of his career, he never pitched fewer than 275 innings in a season from 1971 to '76.

Indeed, Blyleven was the last of the old-style workhorses. As late as 1985, at the age of 34, he pitched 293 innings, a total that hasn't been matched since then, and won't be in the future. Nowadays, even below-average starters capable of "eating" 200 innings in a season win accolades for keeping the team's bullpen fresh.

Blyleven is justifiably proud of his tenacity and endurance, and uncharacteristically lapses into grumpy-old-man mode when the careful treatment of today's pitchers comes up. "These pitch counts," he says dismissively. "Everybody's counting to 100. I'm still waiting for that first guy to blow up when he throws that 101st pitch."

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