King of the Hill

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

"It was not right, very unsportsmanlike, and I apologized for it and have tried to put it behind me. Sometimes it comes up."

Sitting in the bleachers at Dunedin, he lets the memory settle a minute and, when he resumes, the tone is changed. "It wasn't the last time that I flipped some fans off--not all fans of course, certain individuals. That's a competitiveness I've always had. I get upset too. You'd like to hide all your emotions. Brad Radke does a great job of that. I wore my emotions on my sleeve. You know: 'If you don't like it, fuck you.'"



While the sporting press can spend the rest of time sifting through score sheets and statistics manuals, it is a widely accepted fact, especially among player peers, that Bert Blyleven is one of the most prodigious pranksters in baseball history. There are literally dozens of anecdotes about Blyleven shoving pies or shaving cream into people's faces, preferably in the midst of a live television interview. Plenty of times, Blyleven would blow his nose and wipe it on a teammate's shoulder. He has torched more shoelaces than most people will ever own. Yet these are run-of-the-mill gags for a man of Blyleven's talents and dedication.

"One time in Seattle, in the old Kingdome," bullpen coach Stelmaszek recalls, "he crawled a long way underneath those dirty stands to where there was a little gap. Then he took some alcohol and sprayed it and set fire to the bullpen. There must have been four or five people out there and suddenly there is this big flame in the middle of a ballgame. You knew right away it was Blyleven. If I remember, he had a hard time getting out of there."

There are other antics that ex-teammates say they are not at liberty to reveal. Sometimes, they speak of them with a conspiratorial hush, in a manner that seems to be equal parts amazement and embarrassment. These antics are disgusting and off-color--the kind of utterly juvenile acts that a squad of tense and isolated athletes will embrace with glee and even gratitude.

Blyleven's first roommate in professional sports was a fellow pitcher by the name of Jimmy Hughes, who now works for Rawlings, the company that manufactures baseball gloves and other athletic equipment. "One night we were out in the streets of Florida, two 18-year-old kids looking for something to do," Hughes says. "A car went by with six girls in it and I said, 'Bert, I'm going to moon them.'

"He said 'What's that?' So I did it and I never saw him laugh so hard in all my life. After that, you can ask anybody, Bert was the King of Moons."

Viola saw his own share of Blyleven's ass over the years. "The last team picture that you take every year, Bert would always put his pants down," he says. "That always had to be the last picture. And that was the one all the players brought home that nobody else saw. The wives would look at it and say, 'That's Bert.'"

Few would deny that these gags are crude and boorish. But among the arrested adolescents playing a kids' game for extremely high stakes, the gags flipped open the pressure valve. Maybe that's why so many men who shared a clubhouse with Blyleven adamantly maintain that no one was ever offended by his salty humor. He always knew just how far to take it, they say.

If you want to hear grown men titter, mention the time Blyleven took the toothbrush of then-Twins trainer Dick Martin, gave it a few good scrubs against his bare backside, and set it back on the shelf. The next time Martin brushed his teeth, he noticed more than half a dozen players peering around the corner and collapsing into each other with laughter, causing him to simultaneously fling the toothbrush and spit out the paste.

Pure Blyleven.

A faithful fan may argue that the only true mistake Bert Blyleven ever made in baseball was not knowing how to leave the field. After the glorious World Championship season in 1987--when he permanently banished any lingering ill will over his first stint with the Twins--he fell on hard times. In 1988, the pitcher compiled a losing record and the highest earned run average of his career. Yet he still had one great season left, winning the Comeback Player of the Year award in 1989 while assembling an impressive 17-5 record and 2.73 earned run average.

The comeback was mercilessly short-lived. Blyleven was an ordinary pitcher in 1990 and an injured one in '91, sidelined the entire year with the affliction all pitchers dread--a torn rotator cuff. It was time to bow out, but Blyleven endured a final year of physical pain and emotional embarrassment before retiring in 1992.

The inevitable dilemma of what a famous athlete does for an encore was especially acute for Blyleven. In an unsuccessful effort to save his first marriage, which had been strained by his constant travel as a player, he turned down an offer to be a roving minor league coach for the Anaheim Angels. But having been a pitcher since his teens, Blyleven found that baseball was all he knew (although he knew a lot). With his children fully grown and his marriage heading down the tubes, he was living in limbo in his early 40s.

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