King of the Hill

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

Breaking balls are notorious for taxing a pitcher's arm, and Phil Roof, Blyleven's personal catcher during his early years with the Twins, recalls that Blyleven spun his curve so hard you could hear his fingers snap together when he released it.

The pitcher attributes his own durability to a competitive attitude, strong legs (that cross-country training again), and sound mechanics. That last trait, however, didn't come without some work. "When I first came up, I was a youngster that just knew how to throw the ball hard--hard fastball, hard curveball, " he says. "I almost landed like a shot-putter or javelin thrower does, on my heel."

It's almost three hours before the Twins will play Toronto in the Blue Jays' spring training home of Dunedin, Florida, and Blyleven, who will be doing the color analysis for the first time this season, is soaking up the March sun in the bleachers. "This was back in 1970 and Marv Grissom was the pitching coach," Blyleven continues. "And I remember Marv putting a folding chair down where I usually landed, and saying, 'You have to step over that. You have to utilize the strength in the lower part of your body.'

"And I said, 'But what happens if I land on that chair?' And he said, 'Well, you'll break your neck, won't you?'"

Another strength of Blyleven's game was his ability to challenge--and intimidate--a hitter by brushing him back from the plate with inside pitches. This, too, is a faded art of the game. Although a few veteran stars such as Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez can still get away with it, the league is making good on its threat to curb the practice through increased warnings and pitcher expulsions. Blyleven's brushback made a devilish complement to his curveball. It exacted a toll from the experienced hitter, who otherwise might crowd in close to get a shot at Blyleven's curve as it dropped onto the outside corner of the plate.

"There's an art to pitching inside. You can't be afraid to do it and you need to do it with a purpose," Blyleven says. You get the impression he is only half-kidding when he adds, "If you hit somebody you hit somebody. I always figured they had a split second to get out of the way."

"I remember one time in New York he flipped Dave Winfield the best that I've ever seen anyone do it," says Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek. "Winfield's body was parallel to the ground when he went down--I mean he really low-bridged him. And Winfield got the message."

"What I loved about Bert was that he'd challenge any hitter at any time," says former Twins pitcher Frank Viola, who won the American League Cy Young award in 1988. "I watched Bert pitch and started challenging hitters myself, and that's when my career took off.

"I'll tell you a little story," Viola continues. "One day we are playing against a guy who was one of Bert's best friends in the game. Bert went up to him beforehand and said, 'You own me. If you keep hitting me I'm going to have to slow you down.'

"Sure enough, the guy gets a hit in his first at-bat, and the next time he was up, Bert hit him right in the knee. After the game he went over and said to the guy, 'I told you what would happen," and the guy said, 'I know, I know.' I think he maybe even had to go on the disabled list for a little while, but they never stopped being friends."

 

 

Opposing hitters weren't the only targets of Blyleven's feisty nature. By 1976, a veteran player's right to declare himself a free agent was altering the economics of baseball, a fact that Twins owner Calvin Griffith took enormous pains to ignore.

"I think I made $62,000 in 1975," Blyleven says. "When I got to spring training in 1976, Mr. Griffith said he was offering me $66,000 and that if I didn't take it he would pay me $52,000.

"I said I was going to become a free agent. The whole thing didn't leave a good taste in my mouth, because the media made it seem like I was demanding all this money. We didn't even have agents back then."

Just before the trading deadline, Blyleven learned that he was part of a deal that would send him to Texas to play for the Rangers. But first he had a game to pitch that night. As he left the mound for the final time, he issued the old one-finger salute. Accounts differ as to whether it was aimed at Griffith or Twins fans in general.

"Neither one," Blyleven says. "Actually, it was a parting shot to a group of individuals behind the dugout who were singing, 'Bye Bye Bertie,' and getting louder and more drunk as the game went on. And I remember I was losing 3-1 and had just struck out the last guy. I knew I was coming out of the game and knew I was already going to Texas. As I walked off, I looked up and I saw them and my first reaction was to flip them the bird.

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