ONE LAST CURVE : After All These Years of Beating the Angels, Blyleven Comes Full Circle and Winds Up Pitching in Anaheim
The Angels have met the enemy, and now he is one of them. Bert Blyleven, the dreaded Dutchman, Lucifer in a beard to Angel teams for nearly two decades, now sports a halo.
It isn’t an easy concept to grasp. Even Blyleven, after all those years of smuggling curveballs past bedeviled Angel hitters, is having trouble getting used to the idea.
“I pitched the other day against San Diego and I kept looking down at my chest, just to make sure it said Angels ,” Blyleven said.
But it does, it finally does.
Because of last November’s trade with the Minnesota Twins, the Angels no longer have to worry about stepping in against Blyleven, who threw a no-hitter against them in 1977, beat them 27 other times over the years and has a 2.45 earned-run average against them.
It might have been the first baseball trade ever made in self-defense.
But as is the Angels’ custom, it might have been a trade made too late.
Blyleven turns 38 the first week in April. At 34, he led the American League in complete games and shutouts. At 35, he won 17 games. At 36, he helped win a World Series.
But at 37, Blyleven had what he bluntly calls “the worst season of my career.”
Nobody’s arguing. Last year, Blyleven won 10 games and lost 17, most in the American League. His ERA was 5.43, more than two full runs higher than his career average. The 125 earned runs he allowed also led the league.
In earlier attempts to acquire Blyleven, the Angels offered Don Baylor and Mark Clear in 1980, then Kirk McCaskill and Mark McLemore in 1985, only to come away empty.
By the winter of 1988, however, Blyleven’s stock had fallen to the point where he could be had for three fringe minor league prospects--pitchers Mike Cook and Rob Wassenaar and infielder Paul Sorrento.
A longtime Orange County resident who played high school baseball in Garden Grove, Blyleven finally made it back home.
But did he go over the hill to get there?
“You never want to go into a new environment coming off probably the worst year of your career,” Blyleven said. “But it gives you more motivation. I’ve been reading things like, ‘He’s done. He’s over the hill. He’ll be lucky to make the staff.’
“I heard the other day in Yuma, (San Diego Padre broadcaster Jerry) Coleman on the radio said that I was fighting for a position on this ballclub. You hear things like that and, sure, it motivates you. You want to go and punch these people in the face, but what good is it going to do?
“But sometimes out of idiots’ mouths come idiots’ comments.”
Still, the numbers don’t lie. From 1987 to 1988, Blyleven’s victory total dropped from 15 to 10 and his ERA rose from 4.01 to 5.43. Among American League pitchers with 20 or more starts last season, only Seattle’s Mike Campbell had a higher ERA, 5.89.
Asked for an explanation, Blyleven pointed to the thumb injury he suffered in July--rumor has it, he punched a wall--and the distraction caused by trying to negotiate a contract while a season was in progress.
“I was trying to do too many things,” he said. “I was trying to pitch hurt--and you can’t do that. I was trying to pitch through the frustration of trying to negotiate a contract on your own. It all added up . . .
“After the All-Star break, I stunk.”
On July 1, Blyleven was 7-6. Then he hurt his thumb, went 0-5 in July and was placed on the disabled list for two weeks. He returned Aug. 15, won two games and then went 1-5 with a 6.64 ERA in September.
Cause of the injury was shrouded in mystery, primarily because Blyleven considers himself a smart pitcher, and smart pitchers don’t go around pounding the tool of their trade against concrete walls.
Blyleven remains vague about it, deadpanning his way through lines like, “I don’t know how I did it” and “My wife keeps asking me if I hit a wall or something after a bad outing. I had enough of them last year, I should remember, but maybe I forgot.”
Blyleven also arrived at the Twins’ 1988 training camp reportedly carrying the highest percentage of body fat on the roster. To the victors do go the spoils and Blyleven, apparently, did his share of basking in the afterglow of Minnesota’s 1987 World Series victory.
So, by the time he worked himself into shape, he got hurt. And, at the same time, he was trying to negotiate a two-year contract extension with Twins General Manager Andy MacPhail.
A tentative agreement was reached for $1.9 million through 1990, with Blyleven signing his name to a preliminary approval sheet. But then Blyleven had his agent, Dick Moss, take a look at a rough draft of the contract and Moss objected to the lockout language included in the 1990 portion of the agreement.
Blyleven was the Twins’ player representative. And player representatives, Moss said, should set an example, so he advised Blyleven to demand a clause protecting his payment in the event of a player strike in 1990.
That request immediately torpedoed the agreement, polarizing MacPhail and Blyleven and setting the groundwork for a separation over the off-season.
Blyleven was Anaheim-bound.
And what does Blyleven, entering his 20th big-league season, bring to the Angels in 1989?
Well, home runs, for starters.
When it comes to serving up the long ball, Willie Fraser is no longer king of the Angels’ hill. Meet the Dutch master, Willie. Blyleven surrendered a major league record 50 home runs in 1986 and followed that up with 46 more in 1987.
The gopher ball has become so much a part of Blyleven’s routine, he’s worked up a whole routine about it.
“Maybe I’ll be in the history books, in the year 2020, and they’ll be talking about the flight of the baseball and they’ll say, ‘Well, Bert Blyleven gave up 50 home runs one year,” Blyleven said with a grin.
“You know, I was right at 49 going into my last game that year. But that’s kind of like selling your house for $199,000, rather than $200,000. Why not go for it? So I got to 50. I thought about 60, but I knew they wouldn’t keep me out there that long.”
“They said they were using a ‘rabbit ball’ in 1987. Not only was there one rabbit in the ball, but they had a whole family in a couple of the ones I served up.”
“The ball jumps in the Metrodome, but only when I was pitching. Last year was a bad year for me because I always seemed to pitch when the other team was hitting.”
Blyleven’s got a million of ‘em.
And guess what happened when Blyleven made his first appearance in an Angel intra-squad game this spring? Yep, first batter, third pitch . . . home run, courtesy of rookie Dante Bichette.
A bad omen? Nope, says Blyleven. In fact, get Blyleven taking about giving up home runs and he’ll paraphrase Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street:” Home runs, like greed, can be good.
“Solo home runs don’t hurt you,” he said. “Two doubles or a solo home run, what’s the difference? The home run gets you out of the inning quicker. And, you don’t have to pitch out of the stretch.
” . . . I put myself in the same category as a Ferguson Jenkins, a Catfish Hunter, a Gaylord Perry. I think any pitcher who’s going to be constantly around the plate--and who’s going to have the opportunity to pitch 250-plus innings--is going to give up the long ball.
“Walks haunt you more than home runs. Walks create big innings and three-run home runs. In 1986, I gave up 50 home runs, but I won 17 games because 40 of them must’ve been solo home runs. Last year, I gave up only 21 homers, but I probably gave up more two- and three-run home runs than 1986 and 1987 combined.”
Blyleven also brings the practical joke to the Angels, whose clubhouse needs a touch of humor as badly as the rotation needs an 18-game winner. Blyleven specializes in the baser elements of the form--shaving cream in the earpiece of a phone receiver, trashing someone’s locker stall--and vows a thawing of the big chill in the Angel locker room this summer.
“I’m sure that will change,” he says, smiling.
It already has. Blyleven struck last weekend in Yuma, circulating a phony sign-up list for steak sandwiches for the 3 1/2-hour bus ride back to Mesa. There were 18 takers . . . and no steak sandwiches.
“I’m surprised at some of the guys who signed up,” he said. "(Dick) Schofield, (Greg) Minton. You’d think they’d know better.”
Finally, Blyleven hopes to bring some stability to the Angel pitching staff. Even during his horrendous 1988 season, Blyleven still started 33 games and chewed up more than 207 innings.
Last season, Mike Witt was the only Angel to throw more than 200 innings.
Another plus, at least from the Angels’ point of view: No more beatings by Blyleven. That has to worth a game or two in the standings, they figure.
Last season, in his only start against the Angels, Blyleven pitched a complete game and won, 8-2. He allowed one earned run and struck out seven.
Those types of outings are an Angel worry of the past. After 19 years, this team eventually found a way to figure out Blyleven.
If you can’t beat him, join him.
The Angels officially parted company with erstwhile bullpen stopper DeWayne Buice Thursday, trading the 31-year old right-hander to the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league pitcher Cliff Young. Buice saved 17 games for the Angels in 1987, but fell into disfavor last season by reporting to camp out of shape and allegedly exaggerating an injury to avoid a June demotion to Edmonton. Officially, Buice was put on the disabled list for a strained hamstring, an injury he reportedly claimed to have suffered by “sitting on (his) wallet funny.”
Buice returned from the disabled list in early August, only to have Angel Vice President Mike Port remove him from the 40-man roster by month’s end. Buice, who finished the season 2-4 with a 5.58 ERA and three saves, requested his release during the winter, but Port held out for a trade. Young, a 24-year-old left-hander, pitched for triple-A Syracuse in 1988, compiling a 9-6 record and a 3.42 ERA. In 33 games, he started 18 times, had four complete games and one save.
The Angels split their squad for a pair of exhibition games Thursday--and wound up with a split. In Scottsdale, the Angels defeated the San Francisco Giants, 7-1, with six pitchers combining on a four-hitter. Starter Willie Fraser worked three innings and surrendered one hit, a solo home run by Will Clark.
Then, in Phoenix, the other half of the Angel roster lost to the Oakland Athletics, 9-3. That squad was managed by third-base coach Moose Stubing, who still can’t buy a win. Last season as interim manager following the firing of Cookie Rojas, Stubing went 0-8. Rookie Colin Charland wound up the loser in a rough outing (1 1/3 innings, 9 hits, 8 runs), yielding consecutive home runs to Dave Parker and Mark McGwire. Dante Bichette hit a three-run homer for the Angels.