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He’s Thrown a Curve : Blyleven’s Plans Didn’t Include a Spring Break

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 23 years, Bert Blyleven’s idea of a spring break was a snapping curveball. Now, he’s baiting hooks instead of hitters.

For 23 years, he has spent his April evenings pacing the mound under the glare of stadium lights. Now, he walks his dog alone in a quiet campground, bathed in the coral glow of a fading desert sunset.

It’s a weird feeling, he says, a mix of pride and sadness, of accomplishment and loss, of nostalgia and nausea. Clearly, he relishes the chance to spend a warm spring morning fishing for stripers with his sons. But it’s not the smell of frozen anchovies that has put the knots in his stomach.

“I don’t know, I think I’m still in shock,” he said, managing a smile. “I was watching a game on television, and it seemed so bizarre. I realized then that it hadn’t really hit me yet.”

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A week later, on Day 22 of Life Without Baseball, Blyleven was home in Villa Park.

“I’m just kind of walking around in a daze,” he said. “I wake up wondering what to do. From habit, at about 3 o’clock, I get in my car and drive over to the ballpark, circle it a couple of times, and drive back home.

“It still hasn’t hit me. Not completely. It’s been such a long, long time.”

Indeed.

Remember the cherub-faced right-hander who was an All-Star and a 20-game winner before his 23rd birthday? The kid who set Minnesota team records for shutouts, complete games, innings pitched and strikeouts in 1973? Only Jim Palmer had a better earned-run average that year. Only Nolan Ryan had more strikeouts. A bunt single by a catcher and an infield single off the second baseman’s glove were all that separated him from two no-hitters that season.

OK, maybe that’s traveling back in time a little too far.

Remember the bearded Pirate who had a 1.60 ERA in the 1979 World Series? Or how about the ace of the 1984 Cleveland staff who was a hard-luck 19-7 when he missed five starts with a broken foot, and the Indians scored a total of six runs in his seven losses?

And Angel fans must remember 1989, when Blyleven was named American League comeback player of the year after posting a 17-5 record with a 2.73 ERA.

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Yep, almost two decades worth of good ol’ days.

But there has been precious little gaiety in the ‘90s for Blyleven. After undergoing the second shoulder surgery of his career in October of 1990 and sitting out a season, Blyleven tried to start all over again last year.

At 41, he was no Comeback Kid.

He still had his legendary curveball--for years, one of the best breaking pitches in baseball--but he couldn’t muster much of a fastball to complement it.

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“I could go throw a good curve right now,” he said. “That’s something I was born with and I’ll probably die with. I was very happy with the curve. But the strength of the fastball and the strength of my arm just wasn’t to the point where I was going to be Bert Blyleven out there.”

He was 8-12 with a 4.74 ERA last year with the Angels and lost seven of his last eight starts. But he wasn’t ready to give up yet, so he worked to build shoulder strength in the off-season and prepared to makes his last stand in Minnesota.

“If anyone was going to give me a fair shot, if anyone knew the type of person I was, it was the Twins,” he says.

The shoulder didn’t respond, though, and Blyleven’s ERA this spring was 6.27. The Twins decided to go with the young guns, so, in Minnesota, where it all began, Rik Aalbert Blyleven’s career came full circle. The man who was born in Zeist, Holland, and became one of the most productive pitchers in the history of America’s national pastime, retired.

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THE UNKINDEST CUT

Reporters covering the Twins during spring training said Minnesota Manager Tom Kelly, who is a close friend of Blyleven’s, was visibly shaken after informing Blyleven of the team’s decision to cut him.

“When a guy helps you win a World Series way back when, things like that you don’t forget,” Kelly told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “But now is now and then was then, and as much as we would have liked to have kept Bert, we thought we had to let him go.

“I just wish he could have gotten the opportunity for that 300th win.”

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Blyleven has 287 victories. He’s 22nd on the all-time list, but 13 shy of the magic number that drastically improves a pitcher’s chances of making the Hall of Fame.

He’s also only 30 2/3 innings short of 5,000 innings pitched.

It makes your shoulder sore just thinking about it.

“I think it was harder on Tom than it was on me,” Blyleven said. “He knows how determined I was to get back to form. But deep down, I knew that I hadn’t gotten to the point where I could go out there every fifth day and throw seven or eight consistent innings.

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“Sure, I wanted 300 wins, but it’s not really that big of a deal. The thing that’s important is that I gave everything I had to try to achieve that goal. I know deep in my heart that I gave myself every opportunity to come back. It didn’t work out, but I can accept that.

“If I had retired at the end of last year, though, that little bit of doubt would have always remained in my mind.”

Former Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, who now performs a similar service for his brother with the Florida Marlins, has long admired Blyleven’s tenacity. And injuries can make that curveball look even better to a team in need. But Blyleven says he’s not going to flit between franchises in a desperate effort to eke out a few victories.

“I’m done,” he said. “I don’t want to end my career going from club to club trying to pick up one win here and three over there. I just decided that if Bert Blyleven can’t make the club out of spring training, it was time.”

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And Kelly didn’t have to tell him it was time. His right shoulder was speaking volumes.

“I went to see (Angel team physician Lewis) Yocum the other day and he said that there’s just a lot of wear and tear in there,” Blyleven said. “It just never got back to the strength it had to be. And I don’t think there’s any way it ever will be.”

Surely, that shoulder has carried him far enough. He racked up 3,701 strikeouts, third on the all-time list behind Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. He finished with a career ERA of 3.31.

“There is a lot to be proud of,” Blyleven said. “I think I’m most proud of the complete games (241), the shutouts (60) and the strikeouts. Being third behind those guys is quite an honor.

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“I’m saddened I didn’t get the 5,000 innings. The wins would have been nice too, but 13 wins over that time? I mean I can look back and remember 50 games where a foot here or a foot there means I would’ve had the win.

“Geez, go back to my first six years in Minnesota. I was 17-17 twice with an ERA under 2.7 both years. And three years in a row, I had more complete games than victories.”

Or how about 1979 with Pittsburgh when he had 20 no-decisions in 37 starts?

Of course Blyleven has to take the credit for some of the bloopers in his career highlight film. Consider the Sept. 13, 1986, game against Texas when he gave up five home runs.

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He set a major league record that year: 50 home runs allowed.

HERE’S THE WINDUP

It was no joke, but if this were a perfect world, it would’ve been.

The fateful meeting with Kelly took place on the afternoon of March 31, just hours before Blyleven’s favorite day.

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“When I got off the plane, I told my wife, ‘I bet this is an April Fool’s joke. They’re going to call me and laugh and tell me to get my butt back there,’ ” he said.

“But they never called.”

They should have called and told Blyleven just that and then told him they were just kidding. Cruel, but a suitable pay-back for the thousands of pranks Blyleven conceived over the years.

His favorite was the hot foot. Few shoelaces escaped the torch. The fire extinguisher in the Angel clubhouse still bears an inscription honoring his pyromania.

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“I guess my favorite was the time I snuck up behind (then Seattle Manager) Jim Lefebvre when he was being interviewed live on TV by Joe Torre and lit both of his shoes on fire,” Blyleven said. “Lefebvre, being the strict motivator that he is, wasn’t about to stop that interview, even after he knew his feet were on fire. He wouldn’t move.

“We thought we would die laughing. Once the interview ended, he went stomping around. He was pretty upset.”

Well-timed, maybe, but nothing close to as well-planned as the time he rigged matches on the end of a straightened-out clothes hanger, crawled yards under the stands at the Kingdome and lit up a coach in the Mariners’ bullpen.

“I think that’s what I’m going to miss most, the camaraderie,” he said. “But you miss the competition a lot, too.”

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At the moment, Blyleven is directing his competitive urges toward planning a motor home vacation of the United States and making the best use of his time with his family, wife Patty, daughter Kimberly and sons Todd, Timmy and Tommy.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of family things that I used to have to try and delay until the winter. And we’re going to see a lot of places we’ve never seen this summer, from Washington to Montana to Virginia.

“I’m going to concentrate on relaxing and spending a summer with Patty, my best friend, for the first time in a long, long time.”

Summer vacation is a strange-sounding phrase for Blyleven, and unemployment a weird state of being.

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“I’m doing nothing and it feels like I should be doing something,” he said. “I’ve made some contacts about going to broadcasting school and see about giving that a shot. And I’ve talked briefly with the Angels to see if I might fit in their plans somewhere.

“I’ve been thinking about looking for a job as a pitching coach. But there are a lot of possibilities.”

At the moment, however, they’re calling for the right-hander and Blyleven has to go pitch again. It seems 11-year-old Tommy struck out twice during his last game and needs some work on his swing.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Dad, I need help,’ ” Blyleven said. “And I said, ‘You came to the right place. Who better to restore a hitter’s confidence?’

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“So I took him out and he hit me real good.”

You can bet Dad hasn’t showed him that curve yet, though.


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