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.

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."

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.

"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.

Then, about a decade ago, the Twins offered him a job as color analyst, and an encore was at hand. Blyleven acknowledges that his relationship with broadcast partner Dick Bremer hasn't always gone smoothly. Bremer is prone to providing many of his own opinions and analysis before soliciting Blyleven's take. This habit does not agree with the Dutchman.

"The way it was always told to me," Blyleven says, "the job of the play-by-play guy was to get to the color guy--who is usually the expert and has played the game--for the analysis. It's something Dick and I have talked about and had to work out."

Blyleven is a sharp, proactive analyst. In a spring training game against the Red Sox, Blyleven correctly predicted a hit-and-run with Boston's Manny Ramirez at bat. Ramirez has a keen batting eye, he pointed out, and a reliable ability to make contact. But his most astute commentary comes when he describes the pitcher's perspective.

"We're about to find out what [Twins pitcher] Travis Bowyer's best pitch is, because he doesn't want to go to 3-2 on this hitter with the bases loaded," Blyleven announced in the eighth inning of the Red Sox game. The sentence simultaneously taught the viewer something about Bowyer and what any pitcher is thinking in that situation.

At the same time, Blyleven makes no attempt to pass himself off as one of the game's great pontificators, finding moral parables in a pinch runner.

"Even though my dad would have to get up early and go to work the next day, he wouldn't go to bed until Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett told him the final score of the Dodgers game," he says. "So for each telecast, I always imagine that there is somebody out there who just worked nine to five, or eight to six, and maybe they're having a tough time making ends meet. He's relaxing, maybe having a beer, and he doesn't want to hear about these players having bad times. I want to make this fun."

That, in a nutshell, is how one of the nastiest pitchers and crudest clubhouse pranksters in baseball history became renowned for "Circle Me, Bert!" As almost any Twins fan knows, this innocuous, crowd-pleasing ritual involves Blyleven using his telestrator to draw circles around fans in the stands who ham it up for the camera.

He has also been mellowed by his relationship with his second wife, Gayle, whom he met at a charity baseball game in Fort Myers shortly after taking the analyst's job. Even with a reporter in their home, the couple banters easily over everything from the size of his golf handicap to the relative merits of John Wayne movies. And whether Blyleven is talking about taking Gayle to Holland next year on her 50th birthday, or someday buying a motor home and touring the country together, her presence has clearly given him a life outside of baseball.

It is, by all appearances, a semi-wonderful life, with just one unfinished piece of business to be rectified. The baseball writers will have seven more chances to vote Blyleven into the Hall of Fame, before the matter gets turned over to the Veterans' Committee for consideration. "I don't want to wait that long," Blyleven protests.

"When I was on the ballot for the first time 8 years ago there was, like, 470 writers. Now there are 520, which means 50 new writers who maybe didn't see me pitch, or saw me at the tail end of my career when my shoulder was killing me. I'd hope they do the research and look at the numbers. And if they have and I'm not worthy, then"--he mimics the Wayne's World catchphrase to lighten the mood--"I'm not worthy."

Except that Blyleven--and most any baseball fan who considers his credentials--knows that he is worthy. In one of the occasional columns Blyleven writes for his website, bertblyleven.com, he reveals sentiments a little closer to the fiercely competitive man fans remember from the pitching mound.

"I would love to have all those writers that didn't vote for me step up to the plate and let me pitch to them," he wrote in January, immediately after the most recent losing ballot. "I would love to throw a high hard one inside. I would love to watch their knees buckle when I throw them my curveball. Yes, some of the writers might make contact but they will remember one thing after facing me. It's hard to hit from your butt!"

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