Just five votes short of enshrinement, Bert Blyleven staying positive on Hall of Fame prospects

Five votes. Five guys, gals or combination thereof. Five people standing between former Twins righthander Bert Blyleven and what he considers to be the highest honor in his chosen field: election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Blyleven, 58, failed today for the 13th time to receive the necessary number of votes in annual balloting by the Baseball Writers Association of America and thus will be on the outside looking in again — or more likely, sitting in a broadcast booth, working and circling for the Twins — when Andre Dawson is enshrined July 25 in a sunny, Sunday ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. Dawson’s name was marked on 420 of the 539 ballots, 15 more than the 75 percent (405) he needed to gain election. Blyleven, in his strongest showing yet, got 400 votes for 74.2 percent.

“I’ve got to stay positive with it,” Blyleven told me when I phoned him shortly after the results were announced. (Full disclosure: I have voted for the Hall since 1991 and have put an X next to Blyleven’s name since he became eligible in 1998.) “It’s come up a long way, so that’s very nice. … Only five votes short. There’s not much you can say.”

Then Blyleven cracked wise: “Well, you can string ’em up so they never vote again.”

It could have been worse, mathematically speaking. Had Blyleven gotten 404 votes, rather than 400, he would have checked in with 74.9536178 percent of the ballots — and the Hall of Fame famously ruled way back in 1985 that it does not — will not — round up. Back then, it was the late Nellie Fox, the Chicago White Sox’s longtime sparkplug second baseman, who finished with 74.6 percent and whose advocates failed to convince the BBWAA and the Hall to admit him. Finally, in 1997, the Hall’s Veterans Committee voted in Fox, making his family wait 22 years for the posthumous honor rather than 10 (he died of cancer in 1975 at age 48).

Blyleven had heard that five writers turned in blank ballots, a passive-aggressive way of making a statement that no one deserves election in a given year. Those blanks still count in the overall total; without them, Blyleven would have finished with 74.7663551 percent, closer still and yet so far.

It was bad enough that he was five votes short. In the past, when it was 67 (2009), 72 (2008), 149 (2007) or 230 (2002), he could shrug and hope that, by the following Dec. 31 — the Hall’s annual voting deadline — enough of those writers would re-visit and re-evaluate their views of his career.

But five? That would make me want to go knocking on doors. Twist a few arms. Or sign a few checks, five of them to be precise.

Bert Blyleven

“I was thinking, since I live in Florida here [Fort Myers], I could call for some type of recount,” Blyleven said. Right, just enlist Katherine Harris and the Supreme Court and it is next stop, Cooperstown.

He continued: “It’s not like it’s my first time on the ballot. I’ve gone through this for 13 years. You see the slow increase. I was probably more disappointed last year than this year, because it went up less than a percent last year. This year, at least it went up to almost 75.”

The good news for Blyleven is that he again has momentum. He got 62.7 percent of the votes a year ago, finishing fourth behind the two winners Rickey Henderson (94.8 percent) and Jim Rice (76.4) as well as Dawson (67.0). That was a mere 0.8 percent better than Blyleven’s 2008 finish (61.9) and, judged by the trend of top candidates gaining support in subsequent years, it was a disappointment.

Now Blyleven has some roll again. He has two years of eligibility left (the BBWAA considers players for 15 years, after which they must wait five years before becoming eligible through the Veterans process). Rice, from his 14th year, nudged from 72.2 percent to 76.4 in his final year. And no player has ever gotten as much support as Blyleven without eventually getting a plaque in the gallery at Cooperstown, Fox included.

“Maybe it’s meant to be for Blyleven in 2011,” the pitcher and candidate said, “since the last name is ‘Bly-leven.’ “

What really is working in Blyleven’s favor is the shifting reference points for pitchers since he threw his last curveball in October 1992. Some voters hold it against him that he finished 13 victories shy of the almost-Hall-automatic 300 threshold (he was 287-250). They question his lack of a Cy Young Award and his lone 20-victory season. But other voters — especially the active ones still pounding baseball beats — might turn old and gray before they see another 300-game winner. As for someone who throws 4,970 innings, strikes out 3,701, finishes 242 complete games or hurls 60 shutouts, all Blyleven achievements? Fuhgeddaboudit.

If the steroids era marginalized the power numbers posted by clean sluggers who predated it, the pampering of pitchers’ arms and their resulting stats seems to enlarge a guy like Blyleven. That is his hope, anyway.

If nothing else, Blyleven’s near-misses with the Hall have kept his career alive, and kept him in a game, at a point when many peers have to cheat at golf or taxes to get a competitive rush. He can focus on five vote-wielding writers the way he used to prep for the middle of the Orioles’ batting order.

“It’s funny, I told my wife — we’re sitting there watching [the Hall of Fame announcement show on the MLB Network — and I said, ‘My hands are cold. I feel like I’m getting ready to start a ball game.’ It’s been a while since that feeling. It comes once a year at this time, when the nervousness — and the not-knowing — is there. It’s kind of what you go through when you pitch.”

Then I tried to cheer up Blyleven (who didn’t really need any) by talking about Billy Williams, the former Chicago Cubs slugger who got more notoriety and respect from “unjustly” missing the Hall of Fame for several years than he ever did as a player. Guys who get in fast tend to get tucked away and forgotten about, I told him.

Did that help?

“No, it did not at all,” Blyleven deadpanned. “Thanks for trying.”

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