Nobody filled the back of a baseball card better than Bert
Blyleven, whose name (Aalbert) and birthplace (Zeist)
suggested--with alphabetical ambidexterity--that a whole
encyclopedia was inside that 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch rectangle.
On the flip side of his early cards, there was often a cartoon:
the Dutch-born Blyleven (in mid-windup, in wooden shoes) pitching
at windmills, his curveball--the best of his generation--tracing
a wild S-curve to home plate.
Gradually those cartoons were squeezed out by statistical
columns, 22 lines for 22 major league seasons, most of them spent
with an unholy trinity of teams: the Twins, the Rangers and the
Indians of the '70s and mid-'80s. And still Blyleven, who retired
in 1992, won 287 games. Even now, as Pete Rose narcissistically
hijacks every Hall of Fame discussion, Blyleven should be a
wooden shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
Except for this. "I think some writers don't realize how
difficult it is to win a major league baseball game," says
Blyleven, who lost 74 one-run games and 41 two-run games while
carrying more clowns than a circus Beetle.
Had he won just 13 of those games, Blyleven would be a 300-game
winner sitting still, at this very moment, while his mustache was
cast in bronze. Instead, Blyleven--talking on his cellphone in
Fort Myers, Fla.--is pumping gas. "Into my car," stresses the
52-year-old, who was fond of wearing, in his playing days, a
T-shirt emblazoned, I [LOVE] FARTING.
For most of his life Blyleven found joy in joy buzzers and put
the whoop in whoopie cushions. He was baseball's merriest
prankster. But for one week every January, when the Hall of Fame
vote is announced, life is more Mudville than vaudeville.
"I hear how I never won a Cy Young," says Blyleven, enumerating
the knocks against him. "That I had only one 20-win season.
People say I gave up too many home runs [430, seventh alltime].
Well, guess what? The alltime leader in home runs given up is
Robin Roberts, and he's in the Hall of Fame."
Blyleven ranks fifth in career strikeouts. (Everyone else in the
top 10 is or will be in the Hall of Fame.) He ranks ninth in
shutouts. (Everyone else in the top 13 is in.) He ranks eighth
alltime in games started. (Everyone else in the top 12 but
sixth-ranked Tommy John is in.) And he ranks 13th alltime in
innings pitched. (Everyone else in the top 16 is in.) It's enough
to make a man start sniffing his armpits.
When he did make the postseason, Blyleven went 5-1 with a 2.47
ERA and played with two World Series winners, the Pirates in 1979
and the Twins in '87.
After seven years on the ballot Blyleven has eight more chances.
He needs 75% of the vote and last week got 35%-6% more than a
year ago. But he's playing Beat the Clock. His father is 77,
beset by Parkinson's and incipient Alzheimer's. "If I do go in,"
says Blyleven, "I hope my dad is still with us and knows that his
dedication, hard work and dreams helped me fulfill my dreams."
Joe Blyleven had $74 when he left Holland in 1953 for a farm
outside Regina, Saskatchewan. Eventually he moved the Blylevens
to Garden Grove, Calif., where his son grew up listening to Vin
Scully and watching Sandy Koufax, all four men living a North
As a child Bert taught himself the banana curve, and learned the
possibilities of the banana peel. He became da Vinci with a
dribble glass. Blyleven is baseball's alltime leader in hotfoots
and hood ornaments--setting teammates' shoes alight, adhering
bubble gum to the bills of their caps--and a purveyor of more
pies to the face than Mack Sennett.
But his magnum opus was authored when he was with California in
1989, during the preseason Angels-Dodgers Freeway Series. As Los
Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda conducted a live television
interview before Game 1, Blyleven sprinted from the Angels'
dugout with a paper plate full of shaving cream. Says Blyleven,
"I just smoked Tommy Lasorda in the face."
Swearing that vengeance would be his, Lasorda informed Dodgers
Mickey Hatcher and Jerry Reuss of his plan, the next day, to burn
Blyleven's street clothes on the field at Dodger Stadium. When
Hatcher and Reuss told Blyleven this, he brought a padlock to the
ballpark and secured his clothes in a footlocker in the visitors'
clubhouse. It's what Blyleven did next, however, that rises to
the level of genius. "I took [Angels reliever] Willie Fraser's
clothes out of his locker," Blyleven says, "and I hung them in
All of which is to explain how Lasorda came, in the fifth inning
of an exhibition game, to disgorge clothes from his dugout, douse
them in lighter fluid and set them aflame. And how Fraser came to
look out at the pyre and, later, wonder why the hell Tommy
Lasorda, a man he had never met, had set fire to his pants.
That alone should put Blyleven in the Hall of Fame, don't you
COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Even as Pete Rose hijacks every Hall of Fame discussion, Bert
Blyleven should be a wooden shoo-in for Cooperstown.