He stood on the mound at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. last Wednesday afternoon and wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead with his right wrist. It was the top of the ninth inning, and Bert Blylevan, an 18-year-old pitcher for the Minnesota Twins' entry in the Florida Instructional League, was protecting a 1-0 lead over a young team of Cleveland Indians in a battle for the championship of a league that many who consider themselves baseball fans do not even know exists. The crowd—no more than a thousand—watched Blylevan as he took off his navy-blue cap to reveal a face and a head of hair more in keeping with a Norman Rockwell painting of the late 1940s than with this troubled year of 1969. Blylevan had suited up in a Minnesota uniform by way of Zeist, Holland, Saskatchewan and Paramount, Calif.
Now for eight innings he had allowed only one Indian to reach second, and that one he had promptly picked off base. Facing the top of the Cleveland order in the ninth, Blylevan did what pitchers only dream of doing in championship games. He struck out the side.
Fast? Another of those kids who, as the scouts say, can throw a Ping-Pong ball through an armored truck or a cocktail onion through a locomotive? Nope. Bert Blylevan throws a masterful curve ball. It brought him eight straight wins in a league that since 1965 has seen all four of its champions end up competing in the subsequent season's World Series. Three of those teams—the Baltimore Orioles of 1966, the Detroit Tigers of 1968 and the New York Mets of 1969—won the Series, while the long-shot Boston Red Sox of 1967 came within the St. Louis Cards' Bob Gibson of doing the very same thing. If past performances mean a thing, Twin fans in Bigfork, Fergus Falls, Elbow Lake and Minnehaha can sit back and wait for a pennant in 1970.
The Florida Instructional League is barely a dozen years old and, like its counterpart in Arizona, is comparable to no league that functions during the regular season. But because the structure of major league baseball has changed so drastically in the last 20 years, both the leagues now serve the vital purpose of feeding young players into the majors. They also serve as a place where injured players from the season before can get themselves into shape for the spring training season that begins only 12 weeks from now.
Certainly the two most inspired comebacks of the 1969 season, those of Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox and Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles, were aided tremendously by the work each did in the FIL last fall. Conigliaro, after nearly losing his sight when hit by a pitched ball, went to Boston's instructional team and tried to forge a new career for himself as a pitcher. While he was at that he took batting practice and hit against enough live pitching to convince himself that he could handle big league pitchers again. Palmer, virtually given up on because of shoulder problems of long duration, went to Clearwater and started on a course that eventually took him to the Puerto Rican winter league and back to the Orioles this year, where he won 16 games.
The experiences of Conigliaro and Palmer may be duplicated by two major leaguers who suffered bad injuries last season. Chris Short of the Philadelphia Phillies, the only 20-game winner his team has had since 1955, pitched four games in the instructionals and looked good even though he had undergone an operation for a herniated disk. Dick McAuliffe, who injured his knee in mid season, was running and fielding ground balls as he started a program that the Detroit Tigers hope will bring him back to second base.
This fall 16 teams from the majors and one from Mexico were represented in the Florida Instructional League. Their clubs lived, practiced and played within a 40-mile radius of St. Petersburg. The cost to each major league organization was roughly $40,000. None paid salaries; each player received $15 a day living expenses.
"There is no doubt," said Detroit General Manager Jim Campbell the other afternoon in St. Petersburg, "that the money we spend here is one of our very best investments. Because of the time players spend in military service and getting themselves through school, the days they get to spend down here become very productive. Players have excellent coaching, and the pressure on them is at an absolute minimum. They learn the little extra things they need to make the majors."
With the exception of the four largest parks—where it costs 50¢ to get in—no admission is charged. The clubs assume the expenses of opening the parks and paying for the public address announcers, ticket takers, ushers and official scorers. The season itself lasts only 40 games, but to many players those are games enough if they bring them to the attention of the parent team's officials, who visit the league once the World Series has ended.
While performances in the Florida and Arizona instructional leagues are not part of a player's official records, it is almost always true that youngsters who do well in them quickly make their way to the majors. The best of them since 1962 have become associated with Cy Young Awards, batting championships and Rookie of the Year selections. They include: Denny McLain, Jerry Koosman, Tony Oliva, Rusty Staub, Glenn Beckert, Jim Northrup, Pete Rose, Willie Horton, Tony Perez, Lou Brock, Gene Alley, Wes Parker, Jimmy Wynn, Claude Osteen, Bill Freehan, Cleon Jones, Jim Lefebvre, Roy White, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Lee May, Rod Carew, Gary Gentry, Tommie Agee, Bobby Bonds, Steve Carlton, Gary Nolan, Del Unser, Mickey Stanley, Paul Blair, Rico Petrocelli, Tony Horton and Stan Bahnsen.
Last season over 100 rookies broke into the big leagues. The three top hitting ones, Al Oliver of Pittsburgh (.285), Lou Piniella of Kansas City (.282) and Carlos May of the Chicago White Sox (.281), were all products of the Florida Instructional League. The Mets' Gentry, with only 41 games behind him in the minors, went to St. Petersburg last fall and won five games while losing none. He not only earned himself a starter's position on the World Champions but also helped pitch a shutout in the World Series and worked more innings (234) than any other rookie.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, solid contenders in the National League West until the final three weeks of the season, brought forth from Arizona their Mod Squad, who helped lift attendance in Dodger Stadium last season by nearly 250,000. Although it attracted virtually no attention at all, the Dodger program in Arizona during the fall of 1968 centered around converting a young catcher named Ted Sizemore into a second baseman. Without a single previous inning behind him in the major leagues, Sizemore was to become one of the main reasons why the Dodgers were in contention. Los Angeles now believes that the money it spent on Sizemore may very well have been the best investment the club ever made. This fall, retrying and force-feeding another crop of youngsters, the Dodgers worked on converting Third Baseman Bill Sudakis into a catcher and young Bill Russell into a third baseman.
Instructional league baseball, experimental only a few years ago, has now become an important thing with the parent clubs. The Tigers' Campbell probably said it best. "When Baltimore, Boston and the Tigers won in the Florida Instructional League and got into the Series everbody kind of kidded about it. Then in 1968 the Met youngsters won. We all said to ourselves, 'Well, there goes that myth.' It sure did, didn't it?"
Bert Blylevan and the Minnesota Twins please note.