Bert Blyleven came to grips with his best pitch inside his Garden Grove home.
It was a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house stretched to capacity by seven children and two parents who managed to put meat and potatoes on the table every evening despite their meager means.
After dinner, young Bert often listened to Dodgers broadcasters Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett describe a pitch thrown by Sandy Koufax called “the drop.”
“I visualized it and found a grip on the baseball that I could utilize the seams to get that tight spin,” Blyleven recalled last week. “That became my curveball.”
It was a pitch that baffled major league hitters and helped Blyleven compile 287 wins and 3,701 strikeouts over a 22-season career that included two World Series championships during stints with Minnesota, Texas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the Angels.
On Sunday, Blyleven makes one final stop: Cooperstown.
The Hall of Fame was not an inevitable destination despite the right-hander’s sterling credentials. His wait to be inducted after his retirement in 1992 will have lasted nearly as long as his career, irking former teammates and managers.
In something of a yearly ritual over the last decade, Chuck Finley would vent to Tim Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications, about Blyleven’s having been passed over on the day voting totals from the Baseball Writers Assn. of America were announced.
“I would call Tim and say, ‘You’re kidding me. Again?’” said Finley, the former Angels ace who played alongside Blyleven for three seasons. “I kind of lost faith in the system.”
The quibbles Hall voters had with Blyleven were well known. He posted only one 20-win season (1973), made only two All-Star appearances (1973 and ’85) and never finished higher than third in Cy Young Award voting. He also gave up 430 homers, eighth on the all-time list, and lost almost as many games (250) as he won.
A few years into his Hall of Fame eligibility, with his voting totals stagnant, Blyleven started to gripe publicly. He feared that his father, who had brought the Blylevens to Southern California from the Netherlands in 1957 after a brief stopover in Canada, wouldn’t live to see his son fulfill his ultimate dream.
“Dad was battling Parkinson’s and I knew he wasn’t going to be around much longer,” Bert said of Joe Blyleven, who died in 2004. “He was the one who sacrificed to get us here to the U.S. At the time I was upset because I wanted him there.”
What Blyleven didn’t know yet was that he had an Angel in his corner. Or a former Angels publicist’s son, anyway.
Rich Lederer, a Long Beach investment advisor whose father once worked for the Angels, began making a statistics-based case for Blyleven’s induction on the blog baseballanalysts.com in 2003. Among other arguments, Lederer noted that Blyleven would have easily eclipsed 300 victories had he received run support that matched the league average.
“I wasn’t quite sure what impact it would have,” said Lederer, who also lobbied baseball writers over the phone and in person, attending baseball’s winter meetings in Anaheim in 2004.
Blyleven soon was a new buzzword among baseball writers, many of whom had previously dismissed his accomplishments as a function of his longevity. His vote total jumped from 17.5% in his first year on the ballot to 79.7% this year, the biggest leap since Duke Snider was elected in 1980 after receiving just 17% of the vote 10 years earlier.
Upon his election in January, in his next-to-last year of eligibility, Blyleven thanked Lederer. He then provided tickets for the induction ceremony — in the Blyleven family section. Lederer will be seated near Blyleven’s mother, Jenny, 85, who will make the trip to Cooperstown from Garden Grove.
Those who know Blyleven, now 60 and in his 16th year as the Twins’ television color analyst, expect him to imbue his speech with his wry sense of humor. And if the player who once one-upped an Angels teammate by bringing a live lobster aboard a team charter holds true to form, he might just pull a prank or two.
Blyleven got the best of Glenn Hoffman early in the 1989 season after the utility infielder had purchased the lobster at Boston’s Logan Airport and placed it in Blyleven’s handbag. Blyleven took the crustacean onto the flight to Milwaukee and occasionally placed it on his shoulder, mimicking a pirate and his parrot.
Alas, the lobster Blyleven named “Skippy” met his demise when a team shuttle bus backed over it.
“He started snapping at me, so I left him too close to the back tire,” Blyleven deadpanned at the time. “The bus took off, and I guess he wasn’t looking.”
Blyleven always kept teammates on their toes, at least when they weren’t watching them.
“Bert would put this goo on your shoe and set it on fire while you’re watching the game,” Finley recalled. “Every day I came to the park and saw Bert, I knew something was going to happen that wasn’t going to happen in any other clubhouse in the big leagues.”
Blyleven was as serious on the mound as he was juvenile off it, his sense of determination helping him log 242 complete games and 60 shutouts. His 24 complete games in 1985 is a total no pitcher has since matched.
One reason he was often around to finish what he started: that famed curveball.
“Most people’s fastball makes their breaking stuff better. In Bert’s case, it was just the opposite,” said Buck Rodgers, Blyleven’s pitching coach at the outset of his career in Minnesota and his manager in Blyleven’s final season with the Angels in 1992.
“He would go out and show them his curveball, a couple of guys’ knees would buckle and everyone on the bench would see it. . . . He got a lot of called strikes because a lot of people were looking for that ungodly curveball of his.”
Though his wait to reach Cooperstown took much longer than he would have liked, Blyleven said there may have been a divine aspect at play. Consider, Blyleven said, the symmetry between his name and the year of his induction.
It happened by ’11.