Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bert Blyleven...Inching Towards the Hall

Hey, another Hall of Fame vote, another door slammed in Bert Blyleven's grizzled puss. Just who is this guy that evokes so much passion from both his supporters and detractors?

Bert Blyleven was born April 6, 1951 in Zeist, Netherlands, moved to Canada, and was raised in Garden Grove, California.

He got his baseball jones as a youngster watching Sandy Koufax pitch (his dad was a sportswriter), and later starred on the Santiago High nine. Blyleven was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in the third round in 1969, 55th overall. After 21 minor league starts he was called to the show at age 19, on June 2, 1970.

His curve was already a knee-buckler, and he was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News, going 10-9 with a 3.18 ERA and 135 Ks in 164 innings of work.

For the next six seasons, he was the mainstay of the Twin staff, winning 85 games while never having an ERA higher than 3.00, pitching less than 275 innings or striking out fewer than 219 batters.

But Blyleven was hounded by media and fans who were frustrated by a bad Minnesota team and appointed him as the scapegoat. He wanted out, and got his wish when was traded to the Texas Rangers on June 1, 1976. He pitched well with the Rangers, having a 2.76 ERA in his first season and throwing a no-hitter against the California Angels on September 22, 1977.

Then came his brief Bucco stay. On December 8, 1977, Blyleven and John Milner were traded to the Pirates as part of the first four-team trade in MLB history, with Al Oliver and the Mets' Jon Matlock going to the Rangers, and the Braves tossing in an odd player or two.

He became the rotation's tough-luck guy in Pittsburgh, rarely getting any run support, and he hurt his own cause as his performance dropped each season. Blyleven started off 14-10 with a 3.03 ERA in 1978, followed by 12-5 slate - he had an astounding 20 no decisions, still a record - and 3.60 ERA in the championship year of 1979 (he went 2-0 in the post season, with a Series win and ERA of 1.40), and then fell to 8-13 in 1980 with a 3.83 ERA.

Blyleven and the Pirates finally butted heads. He was unhappy with Chuck Tanner's strategy of going to the bullpen in close games, priding himself on complete games, and he threatened to retire he wasn't traded. It was less than an amicable divorce.

Blyleven did get what he wanted, going to the Cleveland Indians on December 9, 1980 for four guys, Bob Owchinko being the biggest name that came back in return. They gave him away rather than put up with what the suits considered his self-centered guff.

He bounced around after that. In what was fast becoming a career calling card, Blyleven became unhappy playing for the lackluster Indians and forced a trade back to the Twins, where he passed the 3,000-strikeout mark and helped Minnesota to a 1987 World Series crown.

Blyleven went to the California Angels in 1989 and put together 17-5 record and 2.73 ERA, but he missed the entire 1991 season following rotator cuff surgery. He came back in 1992, but was done, a victim of age and the knife, going 8-12 with a 4.74 ERA.

He retired following that season with a career 287-250 record, 3,701 strikeouts and a 3.31 ERA. Blyleven won major league games before he turned twenty and he won major league games after he turned forty, a club that includes only Herb Pennock & Mike Morgan. He also won fifteen games by the score of 1-0. Only two other pitchers have won more 1-0 games, Walter "Big Train" Johnson and Christy Mathewson.

Blyleven has been the color man for the Twins since 1995, and will be the pitching coach for the Dutch national team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

He ranks 5th all-time in strikeouts, 9th in shutouts with 60, and 27th all-time in wins. Blyleven is the only retired member of the 3000 strikeout club not yet in the Hall of Fame, but the writers ain't showing him much love.

His detractors point out that he had just one 20-win season, two All-Star bids and never won a Cy Young Award during his 22 year career. In the key categories of strikeouts, wins and ERA, he only led his league once, when he topped the American League in strikeouts in 1985.

They say Blyleven's numbers are a product of longevity, not HoF talent, and use his regular trade demands as an example of Blyleven looking to pad his stats rather than be a team player, a career-long criticism that still haunts him. All GW can add to the debate is that he's never seen a curve ball better than Blyleven's - and we've seen Koufax's, the next best.

He received only 17.55% of the vote in 1998, his first year of eligibility. This year, Blyleven received 336 votes, or 61.9% of the vote. He needs to convince 69 more voters that he deserves a bust, and has until 2012 to sell himself before he's handed off to the Veteran's Committee.

Oh, well. As Blyleven once said early on in the process, "I know I've got a lock on the Dutch Hall of Fame." He should; he's one of only seven Dutchmen to play MLB.

Blyleven is sometimes his worst enemy, even as an announcer for his Twins. In 2006, he dropped a couple of f-bombs on the air when he didn't realize that the camera was still rolling. He was suspended for 7 games, and his fans were spotted holding "Free Bert" signs at the Metrodome.

"Circle Me, Bert" is another popular stadium sign. Fans hope that he'll spot their poster and circle them on television with his telestrator, ala Bob Walk, which gets the lucky winner $100 worth of state lottery tickets.

Blyleven is the main character in many a story. These are told in Baseball - A Laughing Matter, by Warner Fusselle, Rick Wolff and Brian Zevnik of The Sporting News, published in 1987 and related by Wikipedia:

* Blyleven appeared as himself in the 1990 Jim Belushi film Taking Care of Business. During a 2006 broadcast, he forgot the name of the movie and had to be reminded of it by a technician in the broadcast booth.

* He was one of baseball's most famous dugout pranksters during his playing days. Blyleven earned the nickname "Frying Dutchman" because of his love of giving unsuspecting teammates a hotfoot, and was famous in the Bucco dugout for lighting up Phil Garner.

* ESPN announcer Chris Berman, known for his corny handles, tagged him as Bert "Be Home" Blyleven.

* He appeared in a TV commercial for a home realtor company, playing off the many cities he played for during his career.

* Blyleven didn't even know his correct name until he was about to get married. He thought that his given name was Rikaalbert, but when he was about to get married and got a copy of his birth certificate, he discovered that his name was actually Rik Aalbert Blyleven. Hey, common mistake.

Bert Blyleven may or may not get voted into the Hall of Fame, but if Cooperstown had a wing for its characters, he'd be a shoo-in.


WilliamJPellas said...

Blyleven may be an unpleasant fellow---or not, depending on whom you believe---but there is no doubt in my mind that he was a Hall of Fame pitcher. People forget that he toiled for years and years with mostly terrible teams. Cleveland in the early 80s? Texas in the late 70s? The Twins in the early 70s? When were ANY of those teams ever any good at all?

The guy had more than 3,000 strikeouts and 60---sixty!!!---shutouts. And as you say, he had what was without a doubt one of the greatest curveballs the game has ever seen.

Ya don't have to like the guy to see that he belongs in Cooperstown. And by the way, with all those no decisions while he was here under Chuck Tanner, I personally believe that is what cost him 300 wins. I can't blame Blyleven for wanting out of Pittsburgh when he had an inkling he might get a shot at Cooperstown under a different regime. Nope, can't blame him there at all, sorry.

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, his record says he should be there, Will. He did play for some god-awful teams, and in Pittsburgh, he never got any run support at all. He's got three years; I think he'll make it before the vet committee has to put him in.