Catching Up With Bert Blyleven
Steve Eby | On 20, Sep 2014
While Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven is certainly best known for his 11 seasons playing for and 19 seasons broadcasting games for the Minnesota Twins, he also spent nearly half a decade pitching on the shores of Lake Erie for the Cleveland Indians in the early 1980’s.
“I came here in 1981 from Pittsburgh and we had just won the World Series in ’79 with the Pirates,” Blyleven said. “At that time (the Indians had) a pretty good offensive ballclub. The defense lacked a little bit and they needed starting pitching and I felt that I could help in that department.”
It was true. Prior to his arrival, the Tribe had three .300 hitters in their starting nine and then three more that were over .280. The starting staff, however, featured Len Barker and then a half-dozen other arms that either finished with a record under .500 or had an ERA over 5.00 for the 1980 season.
Blyleven was supposed to take the reins and lead the ’81 squad, but the offense sputtered all season and then a labor strife between the owners and players took its toll on the new Tribe ace.
“In 1981, it was the strike year and I ended up hurting my elbow after two months off,” Blyleven remembers. “I came back and threw nine innings and felt some burning in my elbow after that, but I pitched through it the rest of the year. The next year, the affected area tore completely off the bone.”
Blyleven missed nearly all of the 1982 season by making only four starts for the Tribe and then used his third campaign on the lakefront as a way to get back to form.
“I missed most of ’82 and then ’83 was kind of a rehab year for me,” Blyleven said. “In ’84 I had a very good year.”
Blyleven rebounded with a vengeance for the 1984 Indians by putting together a wonderful 19-7 record with a 2.87 ERA over 245.0 innings of work. “I think I was the number-one voted starter for the Cy Young Award, but Willie Hernandez had a great year with Detroit and I think Dan Quisenberry finished in second and I was third. It was ok for me personally, but I look at the team and our team didn’t do well and that’s the bottom line.”
The 245.0 innings pitched for the 75-87 Tribe were the most by an Indian since Barker’s 246.1 in 1981. Blyleven’s total has only been passed by Tribe pitchers twice since then; knuckleballer Tom Candiotti’s 252.1 in 1986 and reliable Charles Nagy’s 252.0 in 1992.
“You want to have good stats, but you also want to get to the postseason,” Blyleven stated, “and we were unable to do that for the five years that I was here.”
During the 1985 season, a somewhat unhappy Blyleven asked for and was granted a trade by the Indians mid-summer.
“In ’85 I was an upcoming free agent and they traded me in the middle of the summer to Minnesota.”
Blyleven’s combined stats for the two American League teams were outstanding as he fired a league leading 293.2 innings with a whopping 24 complete games. Once again, Blyleven finished third in the Cy Young voting and he also made his second career All-Star Game. The 293.2 innings pitched was just the third highest total of his long career, showing the biggest difference between the game back then compared to what it is today.
“We pitched every fourth day back (when I started) and in the 80’s, they started pushing back to the fifth day,” Blyleven remembers. “A lot of it is desire, heart and determination to go deeper in the ballgame. (As for today’s pitchers), I don’t have an answer. I just see guys getting tired in the fifth or sixth inning when they’re getting five or six days in between starts. Maybe they’re conditioning the wrong way…the importance for me was always my legs, my ass and my stomach muscles to go deep into ballgames. My arm was always a whip to me and my arm never got tired…my legs got tired and my arm would start dragging a little bit. All and all it’s a different game. We didn’t have the pitch counts back then and clubs weren’t worried about guys with long term contracts getting hurt. Now, everybody is protecting everybody and I think that’s why you see guys going only six or seven innings today. Seven innings today is like a complete game.”
Old school through and through, Blyleven also has his own opinion on today’s standard of a “quality start”, which is currently defined as six innings pitched with three or less earned runs.
“Quality starts, to me, is still a farce,” Blyleven stated. “We have to say it on the air, but to me, a quality start is still seven innings with two earned runs or less. That, to me, is a quality start and always will be.”
After his five years in Cleveland, Blyleven was back in Minnesota with the Twins—his second stint in the Twin Cities after he started his career there. He helped bring Minnesota their first World Series title in 1987 (the franchise had won one previously in 1924, but that was as the Washington Senators) and the crown was Blyleven’s second and last. Throughout his long career, Blyleven also made stops in Texas, Pittsburgh and California before retirement following the 1992 season. All throughout, Blyleven baffled hitters with what is widely known as the greatest curveball in the history of baseball.
“Everything keyed off of my fastball and I knew that,” Blyleven said. “I had very good control of my fastball, but my curveball was my strikeout pitch. It was always set up by a good fastball though.”
The nasty curve cannot be credited to anyone but Blyleven, who learned the trick to his trade in a very unconventional way.
“It was self-taught,” Blyleven said of his “Uncle Charlie”. “It basically was learned by me listening to Vin Scully describe Sandy Koufax’s curveball back in the mid-60’s when Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball. I remember (mimicking it) as a young kid when I would watch Koufax pitch—back then it was called a drop.”
While it takes more than one outstanding pitch to make a 23-year career, Blyleven gives credit to another Dodger great for giving him his bulldog attitude on the mound.
“I wasn’t afraid to knock somebody down,” Blyleven said. “One of the greatest moments that I had was as a 19 or 20 year old kid getting to sit in the dugout with and having an opportunity to talk to Don Drysdale. The influence that he had on me and the conversation we had just set up the rest of my career. We talked about pitching aggressive, trusting your stuff, location of your fastball on all four corners and don’t be afraid to knock somebody on their butt. The attitude was, ‘it’s my world and everybody else is just passing through’. He taught me that and it carried through 23 years of pitching.”
After 23 years of domination and two World Series titles, Blyleven had to wait and wait and wait for his ultimate honor to come. Finally in 2011, he got the call he had been waiting for.
“It was a great honor,” Blyleven said of his election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “I waited 14 years to get that call, but you still don’t anticipate it. I had missed by five votes the previous year, but the uncertainty of not knowing what the writers are going to do…you just don’t know. When that call came from Cooperstown I was very excited.”
Even with the final and ultimate stamp put on his outstanding playing career, Blyleven is still very much involved with the game that he took a lifetime out of. In 1996, Blyleven was hired by the Twins to work as a color commentator and remains as the broadcasting partner to Dick Bremer for Fox Sports North. While Blyleven can be known to be a little risqué in the booth, he also has earned extremely positive attention for his knowledge of the game and a gimmick that he has mastered with his teleprompter.
“They gave me this telestrator about seven or eight years ago in Kansas City and they asked me to do something with it for baseball,” Blyleven said. “It’s pretty hard to follow the ball with a line, so I just started circling people. One thing led to another and now people bring signs and stick their heads in a little poster for nine innings just hoping to get circled. It’s a great way for us up here in the booth to interact with the fans. We see them all over now…people wear their Twins hats and you don’t normally see them in a big crowd, but when they have a big florescent sign that says ‘Circle Me Bert’ it’s pretty cool.”
Along with circling Twins fans in the stands, Blyleven also finds broadcasting to be a great way to stay involved in the game.
“Up in the booth, I enjoy watching the two guys pitch and go at it…to see the battles they have with one another,” Blyleven said. “Now, I look at it like I pitch every night. That’s what I like about broadcasting.”
As a Twins broadcaster, the Hall of Famer also gets a front row seat to watch one of the great talents of this generation as well. Blyleven glows when he speaks of the ability of catcher/first baseman Joe Mauer and sees the ultimate honor eventually coming his way as well.
“Right now I’d have to say that he’s one of the best ever to play catcher,” Blyleven said of Mauer. “He’s won three batting titles and no catcher has ever done that. I hope he stays healthy. That’s the key for a guy like Joe. He’s a great hitter—he’s a pure hitter. He’s fun to watch on a nightly basis. He’s not the leader type like a Kirby Puckett or a Willie Stargell, but he does it with his bat. He’s more like Harmon Killebrew. He isn’t vocal, isn’t a rah-rah type guy, he just goes about business. When I look at a young, talented kid like that, I just hope he can stay healthy for a long, long time and put up some great numbers. I think if he does that, he’ll be a Hall of Famer.”
Besides broadcasting Twins games up in the booth, Blyleven has also ventured back into the dugout a couple of times recently for the World Baseball Classic. A native of Holland, Blyleven has been a coach for the Dutch team during the last two WBC tournaments.
“It was exciting,” Blyleven said of his time with the WBC. “I was born in Holland, so being a part of the Dutch WBC team was an honor. You go there and just try to instill some of your experiences into these young kids. (In 2009) I had my first opportunity to do it because in 2006 my daughter was getting married. In 2009 I went with the Dutch team and went to Puerto Rico. We beat the Dominican Republic twice, which was huge for Dutch baseball and got a lot of exposure as far as baseball in Europe, Curacao and Aruba. Then (in 2013) we made it to the finals. We beat Cuba and South Korea. My pitchers pitched well and we had a very good defense. We had a pretty good ballclub.”
Good ballclubs are not something that Blyleven hasn’t seen before, as the right-hander appeared in three postseason series’ and won the Fall Classic twice. When asked which team would have defeated the other if they faced off in a World Series, Blyleven did everything he could to dodge the question.
“That’s a good question,” Blyleven said with a smile. “We had it all going in ’87…we only won 85 ballgames. We were playing very good baseball at the right time. We played St. Louis who had a couple of injuries—Jack Clark was out and that kind of favored us. I don’t know if Terry Pendelton was 100% or not, but they had a couple of key players out. We pitched well and hit well in the Series…we won two in Minnesota, then lost three in St. Louis and came back.
“For the Pirates in ’79 we lost Game One then I pitched Game Two and we won that one. Baltimore won the next two, so we were down 3-1, but I came in relief in Game Five and got the win. Then we went back to Baltimore and won two more games jumping on the back of Willie Stargell.
“That’s a good question. I’m going to say an eight game tie.”