Watch Out Hall…Here Comes Bert!
First off, congratulations to Roberto Alomar…
…a very deserving HOF inductee. Alomar was the top second baseman for almost the entire 1990s decade, and could do it all (defense, speed, average, some power).
But, being a Twins fan, I was much more excited to see that this guy…
…finally got in!! After years of circling others, Bert Blyleven finally got circled himself where it counted…on the Hall of Fame ballot!
In other posts, I’ve recounted why Bert should be in the Hall (many obvious reasons…just look at the stats, really). So for now, I would just like to bask in the moment.
A few years ago, while writing for the University Register campus newspaper of the University of Minnesota-Morris, I penned a little tribute for Bert that I would like to share here. It’s a bit long, yes, but I think it really sums up my feelings about Bert and why I think he deserves to be enshrined.
Heck, this might even mean a trip to Cooperstown this summer…you never know!
Circle Me Bert
…the accounts and descriptions of this game may not be disseminated without the expressed written consent of the Minnesota Twins. During his eleven-year tenure as TV broadcaster for the Minnesota Twins, Bert Blyleven has almost become more famous for that statement than for his prowess as a former All-Star pitcher. For Twins fans of the current generation, his first name might as well be “Circle Me.” Injecting his passion for baseball and knowledge of the game into every broadcast, Bert has created a sort of cult following in Minnesota.
Yet, Bert’s career is somewhat of an enigma. He has Hall of Fame stats, but is not in the Hall of Fame. His crazy antics labeled him as a goofball, but he has an extraordinary knowledge of the game. It begs the question: Who is the real Bert Blyleven? For younger fans, prepare to learn a little more about your birthday-celebrating, telestrator-hogging broadcaster. For the seasoned viewers, you can reminisce about that knee-buckling curveball and tongue curling up at the edge of his mouth…
In 1951, Jenny and Johannes Blijleven emigrated from the Netherlands (Holland, to be exact) to the United States with their son Rik Aalbert. Living in Garden Grove, CA, with his four sisters and two brothers, young “Bert” was introduced to the game of baseball by his father, who took Bert to see Sandy Koufax pitch for the Dodgers. Enamored with baseball, Bert starred on the Santiago High School baseball team, also running cross country to build up his stamina and leg strength. In 1969, he was drafted straight out of high school by the Minnesota Twins, where after only 21 minor league starts he found himself called up to the majors at age 19. Prophetically, the first batter he faced, Lee May, hit a home run.
Blyleven recovered nicely from that first batter, though, and won at least ten games from 1970-1975 with the Twins. In 1973 he was 20-17, pitching a remarkable 325 innings, 25 complete games, nine shutouts, and posting a 2.52 ERA. It was with the Twins that Bert perfected his master weapon…the curveball. Taught to him by Twins scout Jesse Flores and former pitcher Ed Roebuck, Blyleven’s curve was widely regarded as the best in baseball. Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson once said, “It (his curveball) was nasty, I’ll tell you that. Enough to make your knees buckle.” Blyleven himself claims his curveball was the result of abnormally long fingers. Blyleven’s personal catcher in Minnesota, Phil Roof, recalls that Bert spun his curve so hard you could hear his fingers snap together when he released it.
Not only did Blyleven posses a nasty curveball, but hitters couldn’t knock him out of a game very often. From 1971-1976, he never pitched fewer than 275 innings a season and averaged over eight innings per start. As one of the last work-horse pitchers in baseball history, his philosophy towards each start was as follows: “These pitch counts,” he once said, “Everybody’s counting to 100. I’m still waiting for that first guy to blow up when he throws that 101st pitch.”
However, those Twins teams of the early 1970s were nothing more than aging remnants of past pennants, going 488-471 during Bert’s first six seasons. Struggling with terrible run support, Blyleven’s career record to that point was 108-101. He was averaging 18 wins a season, but because he played on “.500 at best” teams he was also averaging 17 losses. After years of constant frustration, Bert was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1976.
From 1976 until 1985, Bert spent time with the Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cleveland Indians. He won a World Series championship with Pittsburgh in 1979, but was once again mostly relegated to sub-par teams, skewing his statistics even further, though he threw a no-hitter in 1977 and was a Cy-Young contender in 1984. In 1986, as part of the first four-team trade in baseball history, Bert was sent back to Minnesota.
By this time, after spending 15 seasons in the major leagues, Blyleven had gained a reputation for something other than his curveball…his clubhouse pranks. Known as a player willing to stop at nothing for a practical joke, Bert’s most popular trick was crawling under the dugout bench (braving the years of tobacco stains and gum wads) to light teammates’ shoelaces on fire (only after tying them together, of course). On one occasion at Seattle’s Kingdom, Blyleven found a crawlspace under the bleachers and used it to set fire to the opposing bullpen via some alcohol and a match. Another time, Bert had a little fun with Twins trainer Dick Martin. Bert took Martin’s toothbrush, rubbed it over his own posterior region a few times, and put it back. When Martin went to brush his teeth, he couldn’t understand why the entire clubhouse was cracking up. While those pranks (along with the obligatory shaving cream pie during a TV interview, mooning the photographer during the team picture, or stealing pairs of pants from random lockers) may have been considered crude to the outside world, in the jocular major league baseball clubhouse they were an excellent way to break the tension of a long, 162-game season and have a little fun.
Blyleven started his second tenure with the Twins in 1986 with a rather dubious distinction: giving up 50 home runs in a single season, the most in history. The next year, 1987, he did a little better, giving up only 46. “The year I gave up 50, I think 42 were solo,” Blyleven later recalled to his defense, “One time I gave up five in one game, but we won, 11-7!” Of course, the Twins did win the World Series in 1987, so Bert was exonerated.
After a final season with the Twins, Bert closed out his career with the California Angels. He put together a final solid season in 1989 (winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award after a terrible ’88), but had his career screech to a halt by a torn rotator cuff in 1991.
Upon his retirement, Bert Blyleven had put together an impressive resume of career achievements: 287 wins (25th all-time)…3.31 career ERA…4,970 innings pitched (13th all-time)…3,701 strikeouts (5th all-time)…242 complete games…60 shutouts (9th all-time)…one of only three MLB pitchers to win a game before his 20th birthday and after his 40th birthday. While those numbers would suggest a ready-punched ticket to Cooperstown, the Hall has not called. Whether it be Bert’s lack of an impressive winning percentage, appearances on sub-par teams, or inability to stick with one team for a prolonged period of time (none of which he could control), Hall of Fame voters have kept him out.
In 1996, Bert Blyleven became the full-time “color man” of the Twins’ TV broadcasting crew, paired with Dick Bremer’s play-by-play. While at first the duo struggled with adapting to each other’s strong opinions about baseball strategy, they have now managed to create the exciting chemistry you tune in each night.
The last few years, Bert has become famous for his circles. It is my hope that the sports writers of America will do the same, by circling his name on the Hall of Fame ballot. I would…and not just because I value my shoelaces, either.