Bert Blyleven, the Minnesota Twins' 23-year-old pitcher, is throwing off a warmup mound. He works quickly; a tall, husky man with auburn hair, bright blue eyes and the neat, nondescript features of a Tom Seaver. He is taller than Seaver but softer-looking. Still, he throws Seaver-like stuff. A fastball explodes—pop!—in the glove of his catcher, Randy Hundley. Hundley nods and croons softly to himself, "I like it.... I like it...." He returns the ball to Blyleven, who pumps and fires. Pop! "Oh, yeah," Hundley hums with pleasure.
"Bert has a better curveball than Seaver," says Hundley, "and his fastball may be a bit quicker, too." But Blyleven is a copy without the original's shades and textures; without his classical foundation. "Bert's a thrower," says Hundley. "Seaver's a pitcher."
Phil Roof, the Twins' reserve catcher and a nine-year major league veteran, says of Blyleven, "He's got the best curveball in baseball so he hasn't had to rely on pinpoint control and fierce concentration to get by. His stuff gets him by."
So far this season Blyleven's stuff has got him past three opponents but not four others, though his ERA is a fine 2.11. Seaver, meanwhile, has been struggling to regain his form and is 1-4 with a 3.71 ERA.
Rik Aalbert Blyleven is a native of Zeist, Holland who was taken to Canada at the age of 16 months and to Southern California when he was five. He became a major league pitcher at 19. In a span of four years he won 63 games—more than either Seaver or Vida Blue by age 23. Blyleven was the Twins' third-round draft choice in 1969. After appearing in 21 minor league games in less than one full season, he was called up to the major leagues in June of 1970 and won 10 games over the rest of the season. At the same age Seaver was pitching for his junior-college baseball team and Blue was in the minors. In 1971 Blyleven won 16 games. The following year he won 17 and in 1973 he became the 13th-youngest pitcher in baseball history to win 20 games in a season. He started 40 games and completed 25. He led all major league pitchers in shutouts with nine, and among American Leaguers he finished second to Nolan Ryan in strikeouts with 258 and to Jim Palmer in earned run average with 2.52.
Blyleven pitched 325 innings at the same age, 22, at which Blue had pitched 312 amid public clamor that he was being overworked by the Oakland management. There was no such outcry over Blyleven's work load, because his 20-17 record was considerably less flamboyant than Blue's 24-8 in his first full year. Bert's personality tended to discourage attention, not attract it. He did not have Blue's flashing smile, quick wit, boyish innocence and exuberance—all of which had helped make Blue a sensation.
Bert Blyleven is a mild, unobtrusive man who exudes not charm but stolidity. Last year his teammates elected him the Twins' player representative. It was a job he sought, he says, "because it will allow me to build up my education, to learn about owner-player relationships, the pension plan and the retirement plan." Blyleven diligently works out and runs; bowls and plays golf in the off-season. He reads little, occasionally looking into self-help books such as the one written by his minister, Robert Schuller, which promises its readers that "you can be the kind of person you want to be."
Blyleven's pitching success is as unobtrusive as his character. He gels seven or eight strikeouts every game rather than 18 in a burst. He does not have a phenomenal ERA one year, a mediocre ERA the next. Blyleven's have been merely excellent—and are improving (2.82 in '71; 2.73 in '72; 2.52 in '73).
Although his own nature and his career have been understated, it has been to Blyleven's advantage, allowing him to cultivate his craft in privacy. He channels his energies almost entirely into pitching. He suffers no external distractions such as those that plucked at Blue.
"I really love pitching," Blyleven says. "It's an art form. Nothing can happen until you deliver the ball, and you can make the batters do whatever you want them to. Whenever I pitch I'm just trying to satisfy myself. I'm not worried about becoming a star or anything like that. My ambition is simple. It's the same as Seaver's. I want to be the greatest pitcher who ever lived."
But Seaver possesses a fiercely passionate desire and the intelligence to profitably channel it. He may be "dull," as he once described himself, but he is purposely so. His "dullness" frees him from public pressures and allows him to cultivate his craft more freely than would otherwise be possible. Blyleven has the same freedom, but whether he has the passion and intelligence to put it to its best use is not yet clear. His pitching coach, Bob Rodgers, says Blyleven is the hardest worker he has ever met. Whether Blyleven will remain only a solidly successful pitcher or become a superstar is problematical. Unquestionably he has the raw ability.
"I've seen a lot of great arms who never succeeded like they should have," says Davey Johnson of the Atlanta Braves. "Bert had one of the best I faced when I was with the Orioles. But then he was more concerned with how hard he threw and how much his curveball broke than anything else. He didn't consistently throw to spots. I never dreaded facing him. I would wait for him to make a mistake and sooner or later he would."
Despite the mistakes he still makes, Blyleven has such overpowering stuff that he is one of the very finest pitchers in the game. Heaven help the batters if he ever becomes perfect.