A few years ago, the Baseball Hall of Fame sidestepped some awkwardness and possible controversy by decreeing that the cap depicted on a player’s plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., would be determined by the Hall itself. The edict owed to concern that an inductee who had played for multiple franchises — think Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, Andre Dawson — might “sell” that distinction to the highest bidder in terms of cash or employment in his post-playing days.
But if it were left to Bert Blyleven, the Twins righthanded pitcher and popular TV analyst, the cap he’ll be immortalized wearing at the Hall this summer might have a propeller sticking out the top.
His fellow baseball legends, meanwhile, might want to sweep the stage before the July 24 Cooperstown ceremony for whoopee cushions and be alert, lest their shoelaces start on fire. Blyleven’s pranks and practical jokes during his down time off the mound ranged from slapstick to downright crude.
“My dad taught me one thing: Whatever you do in life, have fun doing it,” Blyleven told reporters this afternoon after earning induction from the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America in his 14th year of eligibility. “As a pitcher, it was kind of a cake job because I pitched every fourth day when I first came up and I had three days off to do whatever I wanted to do to get ready for my next start.
“Sometimes that was, y’know, uh, doing things to make other people laugh.”
Blyleven didn’t just get circled for this honor — he got circled, underlined and X-ed on the ballots of 463 BBWAA voters, all of those marks and scribbles counting toward the 75 percent he needed for induction. With a record 581 ballots cast, Blyleven needed a minimum of 436 votes; the extra 27 pushed him to 79.7 percent.
History working in his favor
A year ago, Blyleven — who was to the curveball what Picasso was to painting two eyes on one side of the face — narrowly missed with 74.2 percent (400 of 539), although he had history working in his favor: No candidate ever received that much support without eventually gaining admission to the Hall. But if Blyleven had missed in this next-to-last year of eligibility and again with the Class of 2012, he would have had to wait an additional five years before being considered by the Hall’s unpredictable Veterans Committee.
Blyleven, 59, will be joined at the induction ceremony July 24 in Cooperstown by second baseman Robert Alomar, who received support on a reported 90 percent of the record 581 ballots cast, and by longtime front-office executive Pat Gillick, selected by the Veterans Committee.
His initial comment in a media teleconference was a stab at the sort of humor that marked his career. “The baseball writers of America are finally getting it right. Thank you!” Of course the reporters were on mute, so Blyleven’s chuckle — “Heh, heh, heh, heh” — was the only one heard.
Consider it a next-to-last laugh.
Among Twins, Blyleven will join Harmon Killebrew (1984), Rod Carew (1991) and Kirby Puckett (2001) in the shrine in upstate New York. He finished a career that included two stints with the Twins (1970-75, 1985-88) with a 287-250 record and 3.31 earned run average.
“I am thrilled that Bert will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Killebrew said in a statement released by the Twins. “I could not be happier if it was my own son.”
Killebrew, like Carew and Tony Oliva (who will be considered by the Veterans Committee again in 2012), was already a Twins star when Blyleven showed up as a 20-year-old Dutch kid for his first taste of major-league spring training in 1970. “This is a great day for baseball in general and Twins fans in particular,” Carew said in a statement. “Bert was as fierce a competitor as I ever faced on the mound.”
Blyleven ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts (3,701), ninth in shutouts (60) 10th in games started (685), 14th in innings pitched (4,969.1) and 26th in victories. He said Wednesday he was most proud of his 242 complete games and all those shutouts.
“I finished what I started,” Blyleven said. “And the shutouts meant that all the team had to do was get me one run. … I’m proud of every inning I pitched. I’m proud of my shutouts, I’m proud of my wins. I’m proud of my losses, because I got to play at an elite level a kids’ game for a very long time.”
Always childlike, regularly childish
He stayed childlike, occasionally even childish in his clubhouse and dugout antics. He mastered and kept alive the ancient baseball art of the hot foot, stealthily setting unsuspecting teammates’ or coaches’ shoelaces on fire. Nothing was too sacred — heck, nothing was too scatological — for Blyleven as a way to break up the monotony of baseball’s 162-game season and those days in between starts.
“I wanted to make sure every minute I had was an enjoyable one,” Blyleven said. “I can look myself in the mirror and say, ‘You know what? I had fun playing the game of baseball.’ Not only between the lines but also the days I didn’t have to go out there and compete.”
That’s how he was brought up, Blyleven said. His parents, Johannes and Janny, had been born and raised in Holland and had three children by the time they headed overseas. In 1952, Johannes found work in Canada for four years and then moved the family of five to Southern California, where his brother resided.
“My dad had a joke every night when he came home from work as a bumper-straightener,” Blyleven said today from the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, Fla. “He was always happy. He was always proud of being a U.S. citizen.”
It was in California that Blyleven first saw Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ great lefthander, pitch and heard play-by-play man Vin Scully relate the magical things Koufax did by bending a baseball’s path to the plate.
“I listened on the radio to [Scully] describing Sandy Koufax’s curveball off the higher mounds of the time,” Blyleven said. “The ‘drop.’ That’s kind of where I picked up my curveball. I tried to throw a drop.” His father soon built a mound for his younger son to practice.
It became a signature weapon, a start-up-here, finish-down-there weapon that could “buckle your knees,” Baltimore’s great Brooks Robinson once said. Blyleven unleashed it over the top and from a three-quarters delivery, allowing him to move the ball in both the vertical and horizontal planes.
“I could throw it anytime, any count,” he said. “I could throw it in 3-2, bases-loaded situations with two outs. Everything keyed off of my fastball.”
Playing was always fun, but Hall was serious matter
If Blyleven’s playing days were long on fun, his candidacy for the Hall became serious business as, year after year, he fell short of the needed votes. He said he and his wife, Gayle, woke up nervous today.
“It’s been frustrating over the years, watching the percentages sometime go down, to steadily go up,” Blyleven said. “As far as how I feel right now, I’ve got goose bumps.”
Because Blyleven finished short of 300 victories — a near-automatic threshold for induction — he had to sweat out a variety of critiques and commentaries on his worthiness. Among the arguments against him was the contention that he compiled his stats over a long but not necessarily dazzling career. Also, he curiously wasn’t as revered during his playing days as he has been since, with just two All-Star appearances and no Cy Young awards as the best pitcher in his league.
Others felt Blyleven was a prime beneficiary either of new stats used for baseball analysis these days, the burgeoning focus on them inside and outside the game, or both. Something called Wins Above Replacement, for instance, ranks Blyleven as the 13th most valuable pitcher of all-time. That might explain the modest amount of votes he got when he first went on the Hall ballot — 17.5 percent in 1998 — and the (mostly) steady growth to this year’s total.
Also, the Internet has kept his name afloat and his case in play in ways that never happened before. Blyleven repeatedly talked of his appreciation for Rich Lederer, a fan and website writer with baseballanalysts.com who lobbied for the pitcher’s election.
To me — I have voted for the Hall for more than 20 years — Blyleven’s workhorse resume counts in his favor, not as a detriment. His strikeout total for a player not known as a power pitcher is astounding, and his postseason record with the Twins and the Pirates — 5-1, 2.47 ERA, two World Series titles — also argues for his inclusion.
Then there was that curveball (and its variations), a pitch that could make batters look as silly as Blyleven sometimes acted on his off days.
Besides Blyleven (I voted for him all 14 years) and Alomar, the rest of my ballot included outfielder Tim Raines, relief pitcher Lee Smith, shortstops Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin and another former Twins ace, Jack Morris. Morris didn’t last as long or amass the stat totals that Blyleven did, but he pitched arguably the greatest game in World Series history — the 1-0 Game 7 shutout across 10 innings to nail down the 1991 Series for the Twins. And he was as tough, nasty and snarly as Blyleven could be loosey-goosey.
Today, the Hall of Fame got a little loosier and goosier.