Bert Blyleven was driven to win, and that drive has led him to Cooperstown after all these years.
by JOE CHRISTENSEN
Minneapolis Star Tribune
July 24, 2011
Bert Blyleven was a cross-country runner in high school. As a major league pitcher, he ran to build stamina and soothe his tormented soul.
"When I was going bad, I always ran a lot," Blyleven said. "I ran to get the frustration and all the bad crap out my body, whether it be Coors Light, or whatever it was."
Blyleven was frustrated a lot, especially early in his career. He won 287 games. He also lost 250. If his legendary curveball opened the door to Cooperstown, his inner drive pushed him through it. But his intensity got the best of him at times, too.
In 1972, Blyleven's third year in the majors, he started 7-3 for the Twins before anguishing through a five-game losing streak. It was a typical Blyleven skid, laced with good outings and poor run support, and he was at his wits' end by June 22.
The Twins held a voluntary off-day workout at Kansas City's old Municipal Stadium, and long after his teammates had returned to the hotel, the 21-year-old Blyleven remained, running sprints. Finally, Doc Lentz, the team's longtime trainer, intervened.
"He says, 'What are you doing? You're going to kill yourself out here,' " Blyleven said. "We sat there on the left field grass and talked, and I broke down and cried.
"I always looked at baseball as life. If you don't look at the positives, life can drag you down. It took me a long time to realize there's only so much I can do. Losing 2-1 or 3-2 -- I was going to work harder. That's what made me a stronger person, but I still hated losing.
"Doc Lentz kicked me in the butt. He said, 'You can cry all you want, but dang it, get your butt up and go do what you need to do.' "
It was an important lesson for Blyleven, who took as many hard-luck losses as any pitcher of his era. According to STATS, he made 104 quality starts -- at least six innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed -- that didn't result in a win. That included 46 losses and 58 no-decisions.
No wonder Blyleven was often surly to the press. Still, former Twins manager Tom Kelly said Blyleven always brought out the best in his teammates.
"When he was on the mound, you seemed to play a little bit higher," Kelly said. "Listen, I wasn't a very good player, but when I did play behind Bert a couple times [in 1975], I found myself thinking, 'I'm not making any mistakes here today because it's going to be 2-1, 1-0, 3-2.' There was no room for misplays."
After a bitter contract dispute, the Twins traded Blyleven to Texas in 1976. Walking off the field at Met Stadium the night of the trade, Blyleven heard some Twins fans taunting him and gave them the middle finger.
The Rangers eventually traded Blyleven to Pittsburgh, where Blyleven was part of the "We are Family" Pirates that won the 1979 World Series. His stint with Pittsburgh from 1978 to 1980 was his only time in the National League. He always hated getting pulled from games, but this was, and is, a fact of life for an NL pitcher.
In 1980, Blyleven got so mad at the way Pirates manager Chuck Tanner was using him, he walked out on the team for 10 days. Tanner called him "Cry-leven," and the Pirates traded him to Cleveland that winter.
By the time Blyleven got traded back to the Twins in 1985, he had mellowed, becoming the staff's veteran leader.
"He'd be upset if he lost, and toward the end he gave up some home runs, which I'm sure didn't make him too happy," Kelly said. "But he handled that all very well."
Teammates saw the way Blyleven rubbed off on Frank Viola, making the eventual 1987 World Series MVP a better competitor.
"When [Blyleven] took the ball, he was going to go out there for nine innings," former Twins catcher Tim Laudner said. "It was his turn to pitch, so everyone else put your tennis shoes on. This is his ballgame."
The next day, Blyleven always had his running shoes on again. Win or lose. Had to get that stuff out of his system.
A bulldog on the mound, a hot dog on other stages
Bert Blyleven is known for his pursuit of clubhouse levity almost as much as his curveball.
by LA VELLE E. NEAL III
Minneapolis Star Tribune
July 24, 2011
Bert Blyleven, one of baseball's merriest pranksters, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday. For the Hall of Famers who gather for the annual induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., it means they will have to invest in fire-retardant dress shoes for the rest of their lives.
The master of the hot foot -- in which shoelaces are lit on fire -- is joining the fraternity.
"No hot foots the first year," Blyleven promised. "I'm a rookie to be seen and not heard. After the first year, though, watch out."
Blyleven is known for having one of the game's best curveballs. He's also known for his pursuit of clubhouse levity. Wherever he went in baseball -- Twins, Rangers, Pirates, Indians, Angels -- he was looking for a laugh and didn't care at whose expense it came. He once gave former Twins manager Tom Kelly a hot foot -- during a game.
"He was goofy," longtime Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek said.
It wasn't just lighting shoes on fire. Many of Blyleven's pranks can't be recounted in a family newspaper. As for the ones that can, he cut off the toe ends of dress socks. He stole dress shoes and froze them. He nailed teammates with shaving cream pies. And there were stink bombs.
"I did that on a plane once with Cleveland," Blyleven said. "I never did that again. The smell never left the plane. A lot of people were mad at me."
During the 1979 World Series, when Blyleven was with Pittsburgh, some Pirates players were walking around a market in Baltimore before Game 6. They were down 3-2 in the series, but Blyleven saw a chance to make his mark.
"I see this pig's head," Blyleven said. "I always called [teammate] Jim Rooker 'Pighead.' I asked how much it was, and it was like a couple hundred bucks.
"I bought the pig's head, brought it to the ballpark, put it in his locker, put his uniform underneath it, put a cigarette in its mouth. He was in uniform."
During the annual preseason freeway series between the Dodgers and Angels, Blyleven once smacked Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda in the face with a shaving cream pie while Lasorda was doing a pregame interview. Lasorda vowed revenge.
The next day, Lasorda stole a pair of jeans out of Blyleven's locker. In the middle of the fifth inning, Blyleven looked across the diamond and saw the jeans on fire in front of the Dodgers dugout. But Blyleven was a step ahead -- he had taken his clothes out of his locker and replaced them with those of a teammate.
Blyleven believes his zest for pranks came from his father, Joe, who raised a large family in Southern California.
"There was nine of us at the dinner table," Blyleven said. "He always had a joke. Always made us laugh."
There's no evidence Joe mooned his children -- an act that remains a part of Blyleven's repertoire.
To this day, the Twins don't inform Blyleven when the annual team photo will be taken because he shows up and moons everyone during the shoot.
"I have scouts who let me know," Blyleven said.
The element of surprise is not always a good thing.
"I love it," said Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer, "but I feel bad when they raffle off a chance for a kid to be in the picture and he's probably scarred and the parents are scarred."
Blyleven's favorite such act was in 1991 with the Angels.
"I mooned the team picture," Blyleven said. "Two weeks later, a game is going on in Anaheim. [Manager] Doug Rader says, 'Bert, come here. Someone wants to see you.' It's Jackie Autry, [owner] Gene's wife.
"She pulls out this team picture. It's the moon shot. Gene is sitting there in front and, all of sudden, to the left of him is this big cheek.
"She goes, 'You gotta sign this for Gene.'"