Bert Blyleven: Up Close and Personal
Born in Zeist, Holland on April 6, 1951, Rik Aalbert Blyleven moved to the United States when his mother Jenny and father Johannes Cornelius Blijleven emigrated from the Netherlands. He was raised in Garden Grove, California along with his four sisters and two brothers.
As a youngster, Bert delivered the Long Beach Press-Telegram -- the newspaper that employed my father for approximately 20 years, including 11 as the beat writer covering the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1958-1968 -- as well as the Herald-Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, and the Orange County Register.
I spoke to Bert a couple of times on the telephone recently and asked him if these paper routes helped develop his throwing arm. "Oh, definitely." Laughing, "I could hook it around anything." Well, there you go, the secret behind Blyleven's famous curveball revealed for the first time.
I actually had the good fortune of being a home plate umpire to witness firsthand Blyleven throwing what he calls an "overhand drop." Bert was pitching in a scout's league game at Lakewood High School in January 1974. Although we are only four years apart in age, I had just graduated from high school the previous June.
Bert, on the other hand, was a four-year veteran of the major leagues and already one of the best pitchers in baseball at the tender age of 22. He was coming off a season in which he made the American League All-Star team and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting.
When my former high school baseball coach asked me to umpire a game that afternoon, I had no idea that Blyleven was going to be the starting pitcher. However, having played in the scout's league during the winters of my sophomore and junior years, I was fully aware that these games brought together major leaguers, minor leaguers, and local college and high school players.
"Every winter, right around January, we started working out in the scout league. There were a lot of well-known players out there. Dan Ford. . .Lyman Bostock. It was like a little reunion during the winter."
Dressed in my umpire's attire (including an old-style balloon chest protector just like the A.L. umps of that day), I watched Blyleven toss his seven or so warm-up pitches before taking my position behind the catcher, gently bending my knees as the lead-off batter stepped into the batter's box. The tall right-hander took his sign, went into his windup, and threw the most hellacious curve I had ever seen. The ball started chin high, and it broke sharply downward, crossing the plate just above the batter's knees.
It was my turn to let out the big "steee-rike" call. Instead, I froze. Even though I had mentally prepared myself for Bert's wicked hook, I had never seen one quite like that up close. I knew it was a strike. Everybody in the ballpark knew it was a strike. However, by the time I had processed the pitch in my mind, it was too late. I hadn't said anything, and I hadn't signaled a strike with my right hand.
A home plate umpire has a split-second to call a pitch a strike or a ball. In the vernacular of baseball, a pitch is a ball unless called a strike. As such, my no call meant the pitch was a ball. I looked out to the mound, and I see Bert standing there with his hands on his hips, wondering if I was ever going to pull the trigger. After a few seconds, his astonishment turned into a head shake and a chuckle.
I can picture Bert having a good time at my expense like it was yesterday. Hey, I deserved it. I flat out missed the call. I simply gave up on Blyleven's monster curve too soon. I guess I could have called it a strike retroactively, but it's just not in the makeup of an umpire -- even an 18-year-old one -- to do such a thing. I took a deep breath, settled in, and ended up calling a good game.
When I shared that story with Blyleven on the telephone recently, he laughed (again). "Jim Evans couldn't call my curveball either. He kept calling it low even though the ball would cross the plate as a strike."
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Blyleven prepped at Santiago High School in Garden Grove. He was drafted in the third round (55th overall) out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in June 1969. Jeff Burroughs (Wilson HS, Long Beach) was the number one pick in the draft that year. My claim to fame was playing on the Washington Senators scout team with Burroughs and driving to games in his brand new Dodge Charger.
Bert recalls his first season in professional baseball. "I went to someplace in Florida called the Rock. The baseball fields were worse than ours growing up in Southern California."
Blyleven pitched well in 1969 and was invited to spring training with the Twins before his 19th birthday in 1970. Was there a chance that Bert could break camp with the defending A.L. West champions? "Well, I thought so but the Twins already had a set four-man rotation. In addition to Jim Kaat, Dave Boswell had won 20 games in 1969, Jim Perry won the Cy Young in 1970, and they had just acquired Luis Tiant."
After just 21 minor-league starts, Blyleven was called up to the big-league team on June 2, 1970. At 19, he was the youngest player in the major leagues. He started three days later and gave up a home run to the first batter (Lee Maye) he faced.
"Manager Bill Rigney came out to visit me on the mound and I thought to myself, 'Oh great. He's gonna take me out.' On the back of my bubblegum card, I could see 'Bert Blyleven, 0-1 with an ERA of infinity.' As it turns out, we won the game, 2-1, and that was the only run I gave up. I pitched seven innings and allowed only five hits and one walk while striking out seven batters. Ron Perranoski got the save."
Later that season, Blyleven -- coming off a start in which he tied an American League record by striking out the first six batters -- became the 25th teenager to win 10 games in a season when he beat the Chicago White Sox with a three-hit, one-run gem. Bert was named the A.L. Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News in 1970. He gave up more than three runs only twice in his first 19 starts and the Twins, in a sign of things to come, scored a total of 11 runs in his nine losses.
"When they say, 'You didn't win 300,' the whole idea is to keep your team close. It took me a long time to realize that. As I got older, when we lost a 1-0 game, I knew I did my job. When I was younger, I thought it was my fault."
In 1973, Blyleven became the 13th-youngest 20-game winner of the century, leading the league in shutouts (9) and placing second in ERA (2.52) and strikeouts (258). He started 40 games and pitched 325 innings. Think about that for a second. That's over eight innings per outing. "I took a lot of pride in my complete games that year."
After being traded to the Texas Rangers in June 1976, Blyleven pitched 11 innings in his first start and lost, 3-2. What's more, his first two wins with the Rangers were ten-inning, complete-game 1-0 shutouts (one of which was a one-hitter). Over the course of his career, Bert won 15 games by a 1-0 score -- third on the all-time list behind Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.
Blyleven threw a no-hitter against the California Angels the following season in his final start after sitting out more than two weeks with a groin injury. "I re-aggravated it in the eighth inning of that game, and I ended up throwing nothing but curveballs the rest of the way." Bert faced only 28 batters, allowing just one walk with two outs in the ninth inning. His chance for a perfect game was lost in the third when Ron Jackson reached base on an error by shortstop Bert Campaneris. Jackson was retired when Blyleven got Andy Etchebarren to hit into a double play.
From 1971-77, Blyleven's ERA was never worse than 3.00. Yet, his win-loss record stood at 122-113. "Back in the 1970s when Nolan Ryan was pitching, you had to beat him, 1-0. The other club always felt the same way about me when I was on the mound."
Blyleven was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the 1978 season, and he helped lead the Bucs to a World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles in 1979. Although Bert won two games in the postseason -- including a "do-or-die situation" in Game Five of the World Series -- he became disenchanted with the fact that he was only allowed to complete four games that year (after never having fewer than 11 in any full season) while setting a record with 20 no-decisions.
"Chuck Tanner and I did not see eye-to-eye. My only beef with him ever was 'why do I have to wait five to six days to pitch if I'm only pitching five to six innings?' What you're doing is taking away about 50 extra innings."
Blyleven threatened to retire on April 30, 1980 unless he was traded. After being placed on the disqualified list, Bert agreed to rejoin the Pirates on May 13. Although he allowed more than three runs only twice in his first ten starts, his record stood at 0-4 when he shut out the New York Mets on the last day in May. He failed to win 10 games for the first time in his career and was dealt to the Cleveland Indians in a six-player transaction in December 1980.
"To me, baseball was always supposed to be fun. In 1980 I wasn't having fun. I didn't leave on the best of terms. It was a frustrating experience."
Blyleven missed most of the 1982 season with a severe elbow injury. However, he bounced back in 1984 and enjoyed what Bert believes was the best year of his career. He won 19 games for a sixth-place team despite missing four starts in May and June due to a freak foot injury.
"It was a stupid mistake. Broderick Perkins threw a ball over my head in the outfield before a game and I went to get it like Randy Moss would a football, and I turned my ankle."
The Indians were in no position to sign Blyleven after his free agent year and traded him back to the Twins on August 1, 1985. Bert led the league that season in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts. He topped the league in innings once again the following year while allowing 50 home runs, a record that still stands today.
When the subject of home runs allowed comes up, Blyleven is quick to point out that five of the six pitchers ahead of him on the all-time list (Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Warren Spahn) as well as the next two (Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry) are all in the Hall of Fame. "Of the 96 homers I gave up in 1986 and 1987, something like 80 were solo shots."
Blyleven's voice perks up when talking about the World Series championship the Twins won in 1987. "Oh, that was exciting. No one expected us to be there." Bert started four games during the postseason and won three times.
After hurting his shoulder in 1988, Blyleven was traded to the Angels. He was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1989, pitching home games in front of his parents and siblings regularly for the first time in his professional career. Bert won 16 more games with the Angels in 1990 and 1992, becoming one of only three pitchers in major league history to win a game before the age of 20 and after 40. As USA Today columnist Jon Saraceno pointed out, "He was that good for that long."
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Blyleven's father passed away on October 15, 2004 from Parkinson's at the age of 78. It was Bert's dream to share the honor of Cooperstown with him. He wrote a touching tribute ("Today We Lost a Great Man") on The Official Website of Bert Blyleven.
We children will always remember a father that was a very hard worker, dedicated husband and father, and someone that was always looking for a laugh. . .We will remember a caring father, an unselfish father, and a very loving man with a big heart. . .I know without the help of my father's guidance I would not have been a successful baseball player. He taught me determination, dedication, and never giving up. I will miss the time we had together.
Thank you for reading this column and letting me tell you about the greatest man I ever knew, my dad. I will continue to help raise needed funds to hopefully one day find a cure for Parkinson's.
I will always love you dad. Your loving son, Bert
Blyleven and his wife Gayle reside in Ft. Myers, Florida. He has four children and two step-children. Bert just finished his ninth season as the color analyst for the Minnesota Twins. During the off-season, Blyleven enjoys spending time with his family and playing golf "three or four times per week." He shot a 73 on the day I first spoke to him.
Although Blyleven is frustrated that he hasn't received the one telephone call in January that every Hall of Fame candidate yearns for, he is resigned to the fact that there is nothing left for him to do. "It's up to the sportswriters. I have no control over it."
The man, renowned in Minnesota for circling on a Telestrator a fan carrying a sign in the stands at the Metrodome during a lull in a Twins game in early 2002 (thus creating numerous "Circle Me, Bert" signs at subsequent games), should hereby be circled on the Hall of Fame ballot by every voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- if not this year, then certainly next.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]