As returns go, it wasn't in the same league as General MacArthur's or Ulysses' or even George Foreman's. Bert Blyleven, the pride of Zeist, was back in his native Netherlands to pitch in the five-team, international Rotterdam World Port tournament. "It was more like the veterans' returning from Vietnam," he said. "You know, like, who gives a damn?"
Blyleven was the headliner of a traveling troupe billed as Major League Baseball International, a group of mostly minor league scrubs donated by their parent clubs. He started last Friday's opener against the Canadian national team. "The reason I'm here is simple," said the erstwhile Dutch Master, who ended a 22-year major league career this spring only 13 wins shy of 300. "I was home doing nothing, and someone said, 'Oh, we should send him back to where he came from.' "
Blyleven's homecoming came after a 39-year trek through the U.S. including stops in Minnesota, Texas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and California. He arrived in Holland ranked third on baseball's career strikeout list (3,701), ninth in shutouts (60) and 13th in innings pitched (4,969‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®).
Netherlanders have been taking one another out to the wedstryd since 1912, but only two Dutchmen have ever made the big leagues: Blyleven and reliever Win Remmerswaal, who had a cup of koffie with Boston in 1979 and '80. Though Blyleven was just a Dutch boy of two when his family left the Netherlands, he claims his life in Holland gave him his careening curve. "My fingers were stuck in a dike," he says. "They got stronger and longer when my parents pulled me away to leave the country."
About 2,500 Netherlanders filled up the grandstands at Neptunus Honkbalstadion, a small ballpark across the street from the city jail, for the opener. Beforehand, Blyleven fielded questions from the Dutch press as adroitly as he would a comebacker to the mound. He laughed when he was asked, "Did it bother you to come so close to 300 victories and not get them?"
"No, not really," he said. "If you include my wins in high school and Little League, I had well over 300."
"If you pitch well here, will you come out of retirement?"
"I'm sure there'll be a lot of major league scouts in Rotterdam tonight," said Blyleven. "I'll probably get tons of offers."
The scout most intrigued by Blyleven was a 12-year-old from a troop in The Hague. "I touched Mr. Bert Blyleven!" said Henk van der Zoon, clutching his mayonnaise-slathered french fries.
One of Blyleven's teammates was perplexed. "How's the air here, Bert?" asked Texas Ranger farmhand Mark Brandenberg. "Is it kinda light?"
"Hey, Mark," snapped Blyleven. "I was two when I left."
Blyleven, who hadn't pitched since he was cut by the Twins in spring training, looked as creaky as a 16th-century windmill. After surrendering a leadoff single, he hit the next batter with his first curve of the night. The third batter went down swinging. But the cleanup man, a first baseman the size of a Heineken barrel, poked a breaking ball over the rightfield fence. "I gave up more than 400 home runs in the United States," Blyleven said later. "I might as well give up one in Holland."
The dinger seemed to settle him. Blyleven began to paint the corners of the plate with Vermeer-like detail, yielding a lone walk on a questionable call ("Kill the scheidsrechter!" screamed a fan). Yet when he left the game after the second inning, hardly anybody in the stands seemed to notice.
Blyleven got offered tons of encouragement but no contract. "Oh, well," he said after the game ended in an 8-3 U.S. victory, "I got to play a kids' game for 22 years. Now comes the hard part: Growing up."
An old Dutch Master worked on his windmill delivery in a long-delayed return to his homeland.