Eleven swings, 11 misses: The metaphor is a little mixed, considering Bert Blyleven made his living and what many feel are his Baseball Hall of Fame bones as a pitcher over 22 seasons with the Minnesota Twins and four other teams. But you get the point, and after so many years of prepping himself for an outcome he cannot control, it’s understandable that he would be a little skittish.
No, Blyleven didn’t get the phone call he hoped for Tuesday from the Baseball Writers Association of America, which handles the primary voting for the folks at Cooperstown. Of the 25 eligible players on the Class of 2008 ballot, only reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage got the necessary votes (75 percent, or at least 408 this year) for induction. Gossage, whose fastball, bulk and Fu Manchu mustache made him one of the most intimidating pitchers in major league history, got 466 votes (85.8 percent).
Gossage didn’t whiff another batter or rack up another save (he had 310), but he did gain 78 votes from last year’s results. Blyleven finished fourth, behind outfielders Jim Rice (392 votes, 72.2 percent) and Andre Dawson (358, 65.9 percent). Lee Smith (235 votes) was fifth, and Jack Morris, St. Paul native and former Twins pitcher, got 233 votes (42.9 percent) for sixth. (Full discloser: I voted for Gossage, Dawson, Blyleven and Morris.)
More important, Blyleven went from 260 votes (47.7 percent) a year ago to 336 (61.9 percent), the second biggest gain after Gossage. That seemed to me like a sure sign of momentum in what appears to be growing appreciation for Blyleven’s 287-250 record, his 3.31 earned run average, his 3,701 strikeouts, his two World Series titles and all the rest.
Blyleven comes closest yet
It was the highest vote total and percentage of Blyleven’s 11 years of eligibility, a gain of 76 votes that, if repeated a year from now with the same number of ballots cast, would get him through the door with 77.1 percent.
So I served up some positive spin to a guy known for baseball’s most wicked curveball during his career.
“But there might be more voters next year,” Blyleven told me by phone from Fort. Myers. “More of them might be writers who never saw me pitch.”
Since a BBWAA member needs 10 seasons to earn lifetime Hall voting privileges, it is true that players like Blyleven, Gossage, Rice and others — after the five-year waiting period upon retirement and up to 15 years of eligibility after that — are having their legacies determined in part by people who never covered them professionally.
“Look at it this way,” I told Blyleven. “Some of the old guys who didn’t vote for you in the past might head to that big press box in the sky.”
Said Blyleven: “Yeah, but some of the guys who voted for me might die, too.”
Optimistic early on, now resigned
You cannot blame him, over the years, for going from eager to optimistic to guarded to somewhat resigned to his Cooperstown fate. The arguments both for and against Blyleven have been proffered since he debuted on the ballot in 1998 — actually, earlier than that, as he neared the near-automatic milestone of 300 victories — and the outcome hasn’t changed.
Earlier, he hoped to take his spot while his father was alive to attend the ceremony. Now he just hopes for a fair shake,and craves the respect of those who know both his accomplishments and the game best.
“I went to a ‘3,000 strikeouts’ [autograph] show a while ago, and all of those guys came up to me that day, periodically, and said, ‘It’s a crying shame you’re not in.’ That’s nice,” Blyleven said. “When Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins … when Nolan Ryan and Phil Niekro come up and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ … they didn’t have to say that.”
All of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and most of them struck out fewer batters than Blyleven. In fact, only Ryan — in baseball history — ranks ahead of the Dutch righthander in victories and shutouts and strikeouts. Ryan, incidentally, is the only starting pitcher to be voted in by the writers since Blyleven went on the ballot, and that came back in 1999.
That — the sense that starters are overdue for a fresh representative, with only four elected in the past 15 years — is one of several factors that could help Blyleven over his four remaining years of eligibility (otherwise, he would be considered by the Veterans Committee after another five years of waiting). There is the increase in his vote total, the momentum of gaining support from some previous holdouts like ESPN’s Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark. And last-minute fallout from the Mitchell report on performance-enhancing drugs naming big-name pitchers may have boosted Blyleven’s standing, too.
There is the lack of star power, besides shoo-in Rickey Henderson, among Class of 2009 candidates. In addition to ballot holdovers, players such as Steve Avery, David Cone, Ron Gant, Mark Grace, Jesse Orosco and Mo Vaughn will be the biggest names up for consideration. Blyleven’s stats, relative to theirs, will shine.
Another factor is baseball’s shift to five-man rotations, which will turn 250 career victories into a brass ring and proportionally affect other milestones. Consider: Blyleven is tied for 91st in history with 242 complete games; Roger Clemens leads all active pitchers with 118, tied for 327th.
Finally, there is a movement within the media that might require the Hall of Fame to broaden its electorate. Several newspapers already prohibit their writers from voting, to keep them on the news-gathering rather than news-making side. Others have made noise about following that lead. To keep its numbers up, the Hall could one day add its living members to the voting rolls.
Blyleven would like to see veteran broadcasters, such as the Dodgers’ Vin Scully and the Tigers’ Ernie Harwell, given the vote. At 56, Blyleven would welcome into the process more peers and professionals who saw him perform.
Until then, it’s wait ’til next year, even though that is the battle cry of a team for which Blyleven never actually pitched. He spent most of his career in medium- to small markets such as Texas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the Twin Cities, where there were fewer newspapers, thus fewer Hall voters, and less national attention overall.
“Maybe if I played for the Cubs,” he said, “I might be in already.”