by Thomas Tuttle
Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series, the story of Tony Oliva will appear in the Fall '02 issue.
Baseball is a game of numbers. The national pastime is more than that, certainly, but it is the numbers that tend to drive the inductions at Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. If a pitcher from this century wins 300 games, he is a lock for membership at the holiest of baseball shrines.
Of course, mere numbers don't tell all of the story. There is always more to a player's career than statistics. Bert Blyleven left the game after a 22-year career with 287 victories, a mere 13 short of 300. When you talk to people who had the privilege of seeing Bert Blyleven pitch one of his 60 shutouts, it's notjust the numbers, though formidable, that get talked about. It's about the men themselves and the way they played the game.
Bert Blyleven was born a Dutchman. Or more accurately, Bert Blyleven was the son of a powerful Dutchman, his hard-working, strong father brought the family to Canada and then the United States when Bert was a young boy. It was through his father that Bert became a fan of baseball.
"It was my dad who really taught me a great love for the baseball. He was a devout fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers when I was growing up, and many is the night when we wouldn't get to bed until the game had been decided. He loved those Dodger teams, and my father helped to ignite my passion for the game."
Blyleven didn't start to take the game seriously as a player until he was around 14 years old, and it wasn't until he was 16 or 17 that his focus started to narrow. He was a big, athletic kid, an admirer of Sandy Koufax, and while he was just starting to develop his famous curveball, it was his power that the scouts noticed first. Drafted by the Twins in the third round of the 1969 free agent draft, Blyleven spent that year mowing down minor-league hitters before moving to the big club in 1970, at the age of 19.
In fact, when Blyleven won 10 games in his rookie year, he became just the 25th teenager to win in double digits the first year in the major leagues. His curveball had become a hard-breaking weapon, and his fastball had movement as well as high velocity. He was on his way to becoming the Twins all-time leader in complete games (141), shutouts (29), and strikeouts (2,035).
Interestingly, almost two decades after being named the Sporting News Rookie Pitcher of the Year in '70, he was named the comeback player of the year by that same esteemed baseball publication for going 17-5 with the California Angels in 1989. That helps to shed light on the kind of pitcher Bert Blyleven was during his long big-league career: resilient, durable and a winner.
Says Twins general manager Terry Ryan, "He always wanted the ball and gave it his best shot, which was usually pretty darn good. He'd give you his 250-300 innings year after year, and he was very effective. That's the kind of stuff you don't see much any more, except from Clemens and a couple of others. I know that Clemens recently passed Blyleven's total of 287 victories. They don't seem to make 'em like that as much any more.2
"What really stands out for me," continued Ryan, "is the fact that he struck guys out the way he did. A remarkable achievement, and those are numbers that are not going anywhere. They will stay up there for a long, long time."
A very long time indeed. Besides Clemens, there's no active player near Blyleven's total of 3,701 strikeouts in his career, which places him fourth on the all-time list. Want some more numbers? How about 51 major-league games with 10 or more strikeouts, and eight seasons with more than 200 strikeouts, including six in a row from 1971-1976.
He had 25 complete games in 1973 and yet had a record of 20-17. That helps to explain his 287 wins (making him 24th all-time with no challengers in the foreseeable future) and 250 losses during his career. If Hall of Fame voters are challenged by the number of losses, they should note the words of Herb Carneal: "He lost more 1-0 games than anyone I have ever seen or heard of, and he lost a lot of one-run games in general. It was uncanny, but you do need a team to score runs for you or you're going to lose, no matter how well you pitch."
Indeed, of Blyleven's 250 losses, 74 were decided by one run and 41 were decided by two runs. One would think that with any kind of luck, or support, he could have found another 13 wins in there to get to the magical 300 mark. Carneal doesn't think the 300 wins should be critical in Blyleven's case. "To win 287 games is just a terrific accomplishment," notes the veteran broadcaster, with authority in his voice. "Think about it; that's in the top 25 of everybody who has ever pitched in the major leagues. The fact that he lost so many close games reinforces the point."
"Some have said it took him a long time to get to 287 wins," Carneal adds. "So what? It took Hank Aaron longer than Babe Ruth to get 715 homers, if you want to look at things that way. But,that shouldn't matter. In baseball, longevity is a good thing."
Other Blyleven numbers (as Twins broadcaster John Gordon said, "Look at his numbers!"): 17 seasons with ten or more wins, including ten consecutive from 1970-1979; in ten of those seasons he had 15 or more wins, including five consecutive from 1971-75. He had two ten-game winning streaks during his career, one spanning the 1971-72 season and the other in 1989. Blyleven threw a no-hitter against the California Angels in September of 1977 and had five one-hitters, nine two-hitters and twelve three-hitters lifetime.
Three times in his career he went 11 innings, losing twice (not a surprise, given the number of close games he lost). He became a 20-game winner in 1973 at age 22, the 13th-youngest in modern baseball history. You want endurance? He had the fifth lowest ERA of his career 17 years after he won those 20 games, when he won 17 in 1989. Blyleven led the American League in shutouts three times (1973, 1985, and 1989); he led in innings pitched twice (1985 and '86). He is ninth all-time in games started, ninth all-time in shutouts, and 13th all-time in innings pitched.
And, as noted earlier, he was fourth all-time in strikeouts because Bert Blyleven, who could throw 90-plus heat at the batter, also had one of the meanest curve balls of all time. The break was hard and it was large, frequently coming at a right-handed batters shoulder, and then curving while dropping to the hitters ankle.
"His curve was one of those nasty things with the real sharp break," recalled Tom Mee. "It was one of the greatest strikeout pitches I've ever seen," said long-time Detroit announcer Ernie Harwell. "Like they say, it broke off the table," says Herb Carneal. "When it was working, which it usually was, the hitters needed some luck to get a good swing at it," remembered ex-Twins outfielder and Blyleven teammate Dan Gladden.
And remember this: Blyleven was a world champion twice, with the Pirates in 1979 and with the Twins in 1987. He played a critical role in helping each team to the title. "Bert was a winner," says the Twins Ryan. "He was a key player on championship teams; he elevated those clubs to be the best. That is a big part of who he was. A great pitcher, but a leader and a winner, too."
How does Blyleven feel about all the Cooperstown talk? "I'm flattered to be in consideration; there is no honor in baseball like it. But I'm truly grateful to be considered for the Hall, to be mentioned in the same sentence as some of the greatest players in the game. I think I have more appreciation today for the fact that I played with and against such great competitors, guys like Willie Stargell and Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, to name just a few.
"What an education it was. I will say that if I'm going to make the Hall, it would sure be special to make it while my father could enjoy it. I would like for him to see that day, if and when it comes.
"We had a lot of fun playing the game, and I was able to experience so many different outstanding players and people. I really worked at being a student of the game. It took a lot of learning, but it was all a great experience. That's why I feel the gratitude. It's been a privilege to be a part of it all."