Blyleven method: work hard, laugh harder
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He won nine games before he turned 20. He won eight games after he turned 40.
What Bert Blyleven did, in between, is what makes him the fourth Hall of Famer from an Orange County high school.
But maybe that's the best way to commemorate him next weekend when he gets his plaque in Cooperstown: the teenager and the baseball geezer, sitting on opposite cliffs and staring down into the generation gap, perhaps dangling a very long wire with a lighted match on the end.
Nobody ever accused Blyleven, 60, of complexity. In fact. he was baseball's most committed adolescent through most of his career, a prankster with Bobby Fischer's tactical sense, a fellow who never lost his fascination with the act of releasing intestinal gas.
He was proudly anti-intellectual. On a February afternoon at his handsome house in Fort Myers, Fla., Blyleven stood and pointed to the 287 baseballs in the walls, one for each major league victory in a 22-year career.
"We just put them in the bookcases," Blyleven said. "We don't read very much anyway."
As an Angel in 1989 (when he went 17-5 at age 38), Blyleven spotted fellow pitcher Kirk McCaskill reading Esquire magazine on the team bus and pretended to be horrified.
"Don't you want to just relax and sit back with a good book, Bert?" McCaskill replied.
"Hell, no," Blyleven said. "When you die, what are they going to do? Come by your grave and say, 'He was really smart.'? I mean, who cares?"
Yet when it came to hitters, Blyleven was clear-headed, insightful -- and obsessed, which also is a mark of adolescence.
He threw 4,970 innings and picked up 242 complete games and 60 shutouts by taking care of himself. His definition of a job well done was the dismissal of 27 batters, by himself.
"My father worked 8 to 5," he said, sitting on his patio. "He didn't work 8 to 1.
"If I pitched a complete game, it helped the ballclub. The next day, we had a fresh bullpen to work with. If I had to come out I felt I had let the team down."
Pitching in just two All-Star Games did not bother him. "That way," he said, "I could always pitch the first game after the break."
The only two times he suffered arm trouble came after work stoppages, when Blyleven pushed himself too hard to catch up.
Although he won his first of two World Series with the 1979 Pirates, Blyleven scorned the National League because pinch hitting robbed him of innings.
And even though he gave up 96 home runs in two seasons in Minnesota's Metrodome, he said he liked the place because "at 7 p.m., you knew you were going to play."
Now he is the TV analyst for the Twins and is famous for using his telestrator pencil to decorate fans who hold up signs that say "Circle me, Bert."
But he also has cases of index cards with profiles of every American League player.
And in his 14th year on the ballot, he got into Cooperstown in January. He choked down the old resentments, back when he asked the Hall of Fame to remove him from the ballot because he wasn't making progress.
What miffed him most was the knowledge that his dad wouldn't see the moment. Joe Blyleven died in 2004.
"My four sisters and two brothers will be there with their families," Blyleven said. "My dad, he'll be there, too."
When they finally got to America, they moved into the house in Paramount. Joe Blyleven had something new to show his family.
"We went into the bathroom and there was a cord hooked up to this tank," Bert said. "We pulled the cord and looked down and we were amazed to see the water disappear."
It was the first indoor toilet Bert had ever seen. He was 6.
He was born in Zeist, Holland, and the family moved to Melville, Saskatchewan, when he was 2. Joe worked on a farm, worked for the Canadian railroad. He had a brother in Southern California who needed someone to drive the molasses truck, so they all moved again.
Three children were born in Holland, with Bert the third. Two sisters came along in Canada, and a boy and a girl in Orange County, after the Blylevens moved to Garden Grove, where Harbor crosses Lampson.
Joe wanted the kids out of the house during the day, playing or working, and Bert delivered the L.A. Herald Examiner. At night he would listen to Vin Scully describe how Sandy Koufax's curveball dropped. "I think that's how I learned to throw it," he said.
Joe spared no rod at home, but he always had a funny story at the dinner table.
"It could have been crude, we didn't care," he said. "He was always working. He was a landscaper, he built a garage, he scraped bumpers. It wasn't like he was going to be a doctor. He was a hard laborer."
By then Bert was solidly hooked by baseball. His youngest brother Joe, who played two years in the Angels system and now runs a plumbing business in Anaheim, remembers a day when Bert was supposed to mow the lawn.
"The mower kept running and running and Dad wondered why," Joe said. "Some guys had come by with a ball and Bert was throwing to them, at the school. He just left the mower running."
Bert went to Santiago High, where the scouts began gathering. His games were eagerly anticipated, except by the umpires, who knew that another Blyleven was waiting.
"He didn't know anything about baseball," Bert said of his dad, "except he knew he didn't like umpires from the get-go. If we lost it wasn't my fault, it was their fault. We couldn't finish a game unless he left the school grounds.
"One day at Santiago they threw him out and he went behind a fence into a neighbor's yard and kept yelling: 'You can't throw me out now. I'm not on the grounds.' "
The Twins picked Blyleven in the third round in 1969 and scout Jesse Flores gave him $15,000. The next June 5, he pitched for the Twins in Washington and Lee Maye initiated him with a leadoff homer. The Senators lineup, which included Blyleven's hero, Frank Howard, got four more hits in Blyleven's seven innings, and Ron Perranoski saved his first victory.
"(Owner) Calvin Griffith had told us there was a kid coming whose curveball was as good as Camilo Pascual's," said Jim Kaat, Blyleven's teammate who won 283 games. "I didn't have to help him much. He just loved to pitch."
CRANKING IT OUT
Five of Blyleven's 27 starts that rookie year were complete games, but that was nothing. Thirteen AL pitchers had 10 or more. Baltimore's staff had 60.
"I never knew how many pitches I'd thrown," Kaat said, "until the next day, when I picked up the chart that they'd kept."
But Blyleven began separating himself in 1971, the first of six seasons in which he threw at least 275 innings.
In 1973, Blyleven went the distance 25 times in 40 starts and had his only 20-victory season, with a 2.52 ERA. Amazingly, he was only seventh in Cy Young Award voting.
"I didn't worry much about run support because I felt that it made me better," Blyleven said. "Still, it got to the point that I'd watch us score five the day before I pitched and five the day after, and one when I pitched. I'd say, 'Hey, you guys don't like me?'"
In 1974, Blyleven went 17-17 with a 2.66 ERA. When Minnesota scored three or more runs, he was 16-5.
At home, Joe and the family would keep up with Bert's games by listening to Angels broadcasts and waiting for the out of town scoreboard. And, all along, Blyleven was noticing, studying, refining.
"When I came up I threw across my body," Blyleven said. "Marv Grissom was my first pitching coach. He put a folding chair in the hole I created with my left foot and told me to step around it. I asked what would happen if I stepped on it and he said, 'You'd break your damn neck, wouldn't you?' Suddenly I had better angles.
"I was really a fastball pitcher. I'd pitch inside and try to make that 17-inch plate really 23 inches wide. Then I'd get ahead and throw the curve. Don Drysdale was broadcasting with the Angels and he talked to me in the dugout in Anaheim, told me to pitch aggressively inside."
Kaat thinks Blyleven's Hall entry was delayed because he played for five different teams, including the Twins twice. Blyleven claims to have enjoyed every stop.
In 1977, with Texas, he pitched a no-hitter in Anaheim Stadium with brother Joe sitting behind the plate. His 1984-85 seasons in Cleveland were classic, and he came back to Minnesota in 1986, led the league in innings, and was the No. 2 starter on a World Series champion in 1987.
He ran two miles most days and threw at least once between starts. "We didn't have Tommy John surgery back then, but we had butazolidin," he said. And with each deep outing he began to quell the reputation that if "you stayed close to him, you could beat him," a mantra in the late 1970s.
Unlike Palmer and Tom Seaver, Blyleven was no statesman. He flipped off booing fans in Minnesota one night, and he suffered no foolish questions from reporters. Sometimes he hung "I suck" signs in his locker and stayed in the training room.
"It's a short fuse," said Joe Blyleven, sitting in his Anaheim living room. "It's in the blood."
LIGHTING 'EM UP
Speaking of fuses.....
"I got Phil Roof one time, when he was the Mariners pitching coach," Blyleven said, smiling proudly. "I wasn't pitching, so I crawled underneath the grandstand at the Kingdome, and I lit up his shoes because I'd noticed where he sat every game. I lit up (Seattle manager) Jim Lefebvre, too, when he was getting interviewed on TV by (Angels broadcaster) Joe Torre. He put out a bounty on me the next day. Anybody who hit a ball off me would get $100.
"The best one, though, was Tommy Lasorda. We had a Freeway Series game when I was with the Angels. Ed Arnold was interviewing him in front of our dugout and I got a plate of shaving cream and smoked him."
The next day, in Dodger Stadium, Blyleven was warned that Lasorda was laying for him. So he padlocked his clothes in a foot locker and hung Willie Fraser's clothes in his own locker. During the game, Lasorda got Blyleven's attention and put "his" clothes on the top dugout step, washed them in lighter fluid and lit the march. Somehow Fraser couldn't find his jeans that night.
"It's how I grew up," Blyleven said. "We didn't fly charters in those days, so we were in the airport with normal people. We'd put a $20 bill on a fishing line and jerk it away from people who tried to pick it up. People would just shake their head. Hey, it's 25 guys having fun."
The fun stopped when Blyleven retired, after 1992. He opened a restaurant in Villa Park and established an after school program at the Crystal Cathedral.
The Angels asked him to help young pitchers at Boise, which he loved. But Blyleven said that when they asked him to visit winter ball, his corroding machine finally fell apart, and he and his wife, Pattie, divorced. Blyleven met his present wife, Gail, at a major league alumni event.
The TV gig is satisfying, but Blyleven really wants the uniform back.
His dream would be to supervise an entire pitching operation. His Double-A and Triple-A pitchers would work every fourth, not fifth, day.
"They have to learn how to pitch without their best stuff," Blyleven said. "The guys today don't make adjustments when that 93 mph stuff comes up 91."
As shutouts and complete games began to dry up, Hall voters revisited Blyleven's career and were converted. His vote percentage rose from 47.7 to 61.9 in 2008, putting him within range of the required 75 percent. He missed by five votes in 2010, a year that five writers sent in blank ballots.
Without throwing a pitch in 19 years, Blyleven is still fifth all-time in strikeouts. He is 14th all-time in innings, which, after all, is just another term for outs.
He won more games than Jim Palmer, Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal and Whitey Ford. He had more complete games than Palmer, Hunter, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. He had more shutouts than Palmer, Hunter, Jenkins, Marichal, Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson.
The 14 years of waiting disappear. Hanging in the same Cooperstown gallery, Babe Ruth's plaque will be no bigger than Bert Blyleven's.
Better make sure it's flame-retardant.
First Published July 23, 2011 9:26 pm