Meeting Up and Hanging Out with Bert
Make no mistake about it, I've had a fun-tastic two weeks. It all started with the phone call from Bert Blyleven on Wednesday, January 5 when he informed me 30 minutes prior to the actual announcement that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. After 14 long years, the wait was finally over. Bert Blyleven, Hall of Famer.
I congratulated him and then he congratulated me. I told him, "Thank you." He said, "No, thank you." Bert could not have been more appreciative or gracious in sharing baseball's ultimate honor with me. I'm not naive though. He did all the work on the field. Fifth in career strikeouts, ninth in shutouts, and top 20 in wins since 1900. Two World Series Championships with a 5-1 postseason record and a 2.47 ERA. And much, much more. My only contribution was making voters aware of his qualifications. It all seemed so obvious to me when I wrote my first article about Only the Lonely: The Hall of Fame Trials and Tribulations of Bert Blyleven in December 2003. Everybody around him in the major statistical categories was in the HOF except Blyleven. How could that be? Well, seven years and more than 30 articles later, we no longer have to answer the naysayers.
In that same phone conversation, I told Bert that I was going to be in Cooperstown on July 24 when he is officially inducted into the Hall of Fame. He responded in typical Blyleven fashion, "You can stand next to me if you'd like." Bert and his wife Gayle have since invited me to sit with the family on that momentous day this summer.
But, as it turned out, I won't have to wait six months to meet Bert for the first time in person. While I umpired one of his scout's league games 37 years ago, I never got closer than about 60 feet, 6 inches to him. You see, on the afternoon of Blyleven's election, I was invited to surprise Bert at a tribute dinner for him at the Minnesota Twins Baseball Fantasy Camp in Ft. Myers, Florida the following Tuesday. I didn't have to think too long or too hard on the offer proposed by Jay Harris, one of of the organizers of this event.
I made plans the next day to fly out of Los Angeles to Ft. Myers (via Miami) a week ago Tuesday and fly back to L.A. last Thursday. Suffice it to say, that trip was one of the most fun-filled of my life. Nearly one week after returning and I still haven't quite come all the way down from cloud nine.
Tuesday, January 11
In anticipation of playing catch with Bert, I packed my baseball glove firmly inside my carry-on bag. My son Joe took me to LAX bright and early that morning. I caught a 7:10 a.m. PT flight and landed in MIA as scheduled at 2:55 p.m. ET. My connecting flight to Ft. Myers (RSW) was at 3:35. I called Jay, who had offered to pick me up at the airport, to let him know that I would be there on time. Unfortunately, I spoke too soon. Less than five minutes later, a voice was heard over the public address system telling us that there was a change in the aircraft and that the flight was now scheduled to leave at 4:30. Well, 4:30 soon became almost 5:00 as the passengers literally stood on a bus on the tarmac waiting to be called onto the American Eagle puddle jumper. I called Jay to let him know that I wouldn't arrive until at least 5:30. He told me not to worry about it even though the dinner festivities were expected to begin at 6:00 at the Holiday Inn Ft. Myers Airport-Town Center.
We actually arrived at the hotel in the nick of time. The program began minutes later with the honorable Bert Blyleven decked out in a white wig and green robe presiding over Kangaroo Court. He fined campers and former teammates-turned instructors a total of $1,600 with all the proceeds going to Lee County Children’s Hospital. Bert had no idea I was there as I sat in the back corner of the room at a table with Jay and a half dozen campers.
Dinner was served, a FOXSports North video of Blyleven was shown on a big screen, Bert was asked to address the audience, a toast was conducted, and songwriter/storyteller Warren Nelson sang a couple of original songs about Bert and the Twins while playing his guitar. Stan Dickman, the evening's host who is also the Executive Director of Ultimate Sports Adventures (which is the licensed provider of the Twins Fantasy Baseball Camp), called Bert back up to the stage. He asked him if there was anybody not in the room that he wanted to thank. Blyleven proceeded to talk about former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, who was unable to attend after learning that he had esophageal cancer.
Stan then asked Blyleven about the Internet and Bert once again mentioned my name and talked about my efforts on his behalf. Stan asked Bert if he had ever met me. The latest Hall of Famer said no but indicated that he was hopeful of doing so in Cooperstown in July. Stan responded, "Would you like to meet him tonight?" After Bert panned the room, I stood up and walked to the stage amid a warm reception by the audience. Bert and I shook hands, smiled, and gave each other a big hug. The look in his eyes was a combination of surprise and gratitude.
I also met Gayle for the first time in person. She presented me with a big basket of decorative cookies wrapped in cellophane as a thank you. The sugar cookies were customized with the Twins logo and Bert Blyleven HOF 2011. It was a thoughtful gesture on her part. I suggested that we take the basket to the locker room the next morning and let the campers enjoy them.
John Gordon, the radio play-by-play announcer, stopped by to introduce himself and say hello. Two days later, I was able to hook up with a fully uniformed Dick Bremer, who is Bert's partner on the telecasts, at one of the camp games. Outstanding broadcasters and men both.
Wednesday, January 12
I arrived at the Lee County Sports Complex – Spring Training Headquarters of the Twins – at about 8:00 a.m. I was given a locker and a uniform. After I got dressed, David Dorsey of the Ft. Myers News-Press interviewed me for an article that appeared on the front page of the sports section the next day. Jay then showed me around the clubhouse and took me to the cafeteria where we served ourselves breakfast. Bert sat down directly across from me. We talked about baseball and golf before meeting up on the field and having a catch.
Bert went out of his way to accommodate me as he had hip replacement surgery in October. Believe me, he can still zing it. Not shy, I told Bert that I wanted to compare curveballs. I threw him a spinner and he mocked me. "That's your curveball?" Hey, it was the first one I had thrown in years and only then at a family picnic. He raised his arm and hand to a 12 o'clock position and said, "You've got to get it up here." As someone who had a good curve through high school, I knew I was supposed to throw the ball over the barrel and shake hands with the center fielder (a visual that worked wonders for me). Nevertheless, at age 55, my shoulder wasn't as cooperative as it once was. Bert, who is four years older than me, broke off a couple of tight ones. Impressive indeed.
My manager, Lee Stange, asked me what position I played. I told him pitcher but said I could also play first base. He kidded, "Everyone out here is a first baseman/DH." Lee sent me to the bullpen to warm up. He liked what he saw enough to give me the start. The first two batters hit line-drive singles. Standing just outside our dugout on the third base side, Blyleven shouted, "Hey Rich! Try to get an out, why don't you!" I smiled at him, took a deep breath, and got back to the task at hand. The next batter hit a slow roller to my right. I was thinking two but, then again, I thought I was 30-something rather than 50-something. My brain made the play with no problem, but my body failed me. The ball passed me and the shortstop had no play. A couple of runs later and Bert was now needling me again. "You've got an 18.00 ERA!" It was actually higher at that moment in time because I had not yet completed the inning. Thankfully, I did with no further damage.
Down 2-0 after the first inning, the Stingers (see lineup card signed by Stange and our coach Rick Aguilera) battled back and scored four runs in the top of the second. I got a chance to hit and landed on second base after the infielder overthrew first. It was the last thing I wanted to happen. Not only did I run hard (not fast, mind you) to first, now I had to hustle to second to beat the throw from the right fielder who did a great job in backing up the play. Believe me, sprinting from home to second was the furthest thought on my mind when I walked to the plate. But, hey, I did it for the team and eventually scored a run. Man, was I winded when I high fived Bert on my way back to the dugout.
Teammate Bob Garvin threw several innings, limiting the New Years team managed by Phil Roof and Juan Berenguer to a run or two as we went on to a 14-4 victory. The official scorekeeper credited me with the win in a judgment call that was highly favorable to me. Stange was as generous when he told me that I earned the "W" and went 1-for-1 in my debut. I'll take 'em both, as well as the congratulations from Bert after the game.
Steve Dickman, who is Stan's older brother, took me back to the hotel to change into my golf attire and then to Bert's country club where he hosted a round of golf that afternoon for ten foursomes, generally made up of one former player and three campers. I not only played in Bert's group but rode in the same cart in an 18-hole scramble format that called for playing the best ball after each shot.
Bert posed for a photo with me next to the carts prior to teeing off. Ever the prankster, he suggested we take out our drivers. I reached into my bag of rental clubs for the 12.5° squared driver while he grabbed his ball retriever. I joined in on the fun when we gave each other bunny ears, returning the favor that Bert had given me on the baseball field earlier that day. Needless to say, we had a good time playing golf.
Our group also played well. We tied for first place with a 65. Bert, who plays to a five index, hit a lot of long drives. I was pleasantly surprised how well I hit the golf ball after not playing since July 4th. We didn't hit any balls on the range so my first swing in six months was on the first hole. Although I once played to a five myself, I was a little bit nervous when I stepped to the No. 1 tee. I hit a good drive (which we didn't use), then stuck a nine-iron about four feet from the hole, which led to our first birdie of the day. I contributed a few drives, several approach shots on the greens, and one birdie putt from the No. 3 position in the group. Dick Washburn, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the fifth round in 1966 and was the camp's over-the-age of 50 Cy Young Award winner, and Joe Repya, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and combat veteran of three wars, also helped our cause.
During our round of golf, I presented Bert with a couple of personalized, tour-quality golf towels that my son Joe, who is a Regional Sales Manager for Club Glove, had designed for me. The Twins logo, Bert's name, and 2011 Hall of Fame were all embroidered onto the towels. These gifts meant a lot to him.
We finished the day's activities with drinks and hors d' oeuvres in the clubhouse. Ron Gardenhire, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Tim Laudner, and Bill Campbell (standing next to me in this photo) were some of the players who joined us for golf and refreshments. Campbell, who won the first two Rolaids Relief Man Awards in 1976-77, shared a bunch of great stories with me in the locker room and on the golf course. He was an old-school reliever, combining to pitch 307.2 innings (an average of more than two per outing) in those two seasons. He went 30-14 while leading the league in games finished both years and saves in 1977. Soup, as he was and is still known, placed in the top ten in the CYA and MVP voting in '76 for the Twins and '77 for the Red Sox.
I returned to the hotel that evening not knowing it was possible to be as sore as I was and still have so much fun. Due to the fact that I had no intention of playing the next day, you might say that I retired early for the night and late for my "career." One and done although, as a starting pitcher, I had a built-in excuse for not pitching for another five days. Bert Blyleven or Bill Campbell, I am not.
Thursday, January 13
I woke up at 6:45 in anticipation of packing for my return flight that afternoon and a half day of camp. I met Jay in the lobby of the hotel at 7:50 and we arrived at the spring training complex at around 8:00. I wore black jeans and my Twins undershirt, jersey, and cap but no baseball pants, belt, or tube socks for me on this day.
My teammate Bob Zuckerman, as nice a guy as you could meet, took the photo of Bert and me at the top of this page on Wednesday morning. He went to Target that evening and ordered an 8x10 that he placed in my locker prior to my arrival on Thursday. I asked Bert to sign that photo and a Rawlings Major League Baseball. He personalized both, thanking me again in writing and signing "Your friend, Bert Blyleven."
We looked at the article that appeared in the Ft. Myers News-Press that morning. The photo of me pitching above was on page three. Bert ribbed me. "We need to work on your leg kick." I said, "Are you kidding me? That's major league quality right there." When I returned home, I looked for photos to check his leg kick from his playing days. Oh well, my leg kick certainly wasn't as big as Blyleven's. But it got me thinking, "Maybe the photographer snapped the photo of me pitching with a runner on base?" OK, runners on base. Either way, it may have been too short for a windup and too long for a slide step. That's why I haven't quit my day job.
I hung out with Bert and Frank Viola in the locker room. The three of us swapped baseball stories, reminiscing more about the past than the present. Bert and Frank, of course, were the go-to guys for the 1987 Minnesota Twins World Series championship team. Viola won the AL Cy Young Award the following year when he led the league with 24 wins and a .774 W-L percentage while ranking third in ERA (2.64) and ERA+ (154). As I learned from his son, Frank Viola III, the man known as Sweet Music and possessor of the best changeup in the game never missed a start from 1983-1992. He started a remarkable 354 games and completed 2,451 innings during that ten-year stretch.
Viola's son, a minor-league pitcher, worked out with Blyleven that day. After undergoing Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, he now throws harder than ever, touching 90 with a live fastball. He also throws a nice changeup. However, he doesn't have much of a breaking ball. In steps Bert to teach him the grip and the arm action of a cutter. I witnessed much of his bullpen session, and it was a pretty good one. At 26, he just might get one last chance.
The clock struck noon and it was time for me to say my final goodbyes to Bert. We shook hands and chatted for a few moments. It ended like it started with that phone call just over a week ago with both of us congratulating and thanking one another. As a friend told me in an email, "It's nice to know that the guy you helped so much is personally worthy of your efforts." Well, let me tell you, Bert is as great a man as he was a pitcher.
My return flight was at 1:35 p.m. Jay, who couldn't have treated me any better, drove me to the Ft. Myers Airport. He dropped me off by 12:30 and handed me a sandwich that camp chef George Serra made for me and a Killebrew Root Beer in a handsome bottle. I sat on a bench outside the terminal and ate my lunch. With my boarding pass already printed, I walked directly to the gate. Unlike Tuesday, my two flights departed and arrived on time. Joe picked me up at LAX shortly after 6 p.m. PT and took me to the Claim Jumper in Long Beach where I met my wife Barbara, daughter Macy, and son-in-law Joel for dinner. Macy is expecting in March, and Barbara and I will become grandparents for the first time.
Life is more than good.
Friday, January 14
Upon my return home, I was greeted with a wonderful article by Dave Studeman at The Hardball Times.
Bert meets Rich
In his Friday Filberts, Rob Neyer linked to the Ft. Myers News-Press article and added, "My favorite story of the week? Rich Lederer and Bert Blyleven having a catch."
I was also interviewed that morning by Bob Sansevere, a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is a member of the BBWAA and is a Hall of Fame voter. To Bob's credit, he has voted for Blyleven since the get go. The Q&A appeared online that evening and in the newspaper the following day.
Buster Olney linked to the interview on his blog last Saturday (subscription required). "Rich Lederer had a lot to do with Bert Blyleven's induction into the Hall of Fame, Bob Sansevere writes."
Stan Dickman, the owner of the baseball camp, made my day on Sunday with the following note within his email. "The highlight of the week was your surprise appearance at our Tuesday evening banquet."
The pleasure was mine. Thanks to Bert and everyone involved for making the past two weeks so memorable.
Photo credits (in order): Bob Zuckerman (standing with Blyleven), Brian Hirten/Ft. Myers News-Press (pitching), and Al Schuth, Twins Camp photographer (action sequence above).