Shared Pasts United Blyleven and Alomar Long Before Cooperstown

It has been more than a few years since the Cleveland Indians organization last saw one of its own recognized for his contributions to the game with a spot in Cooperstown, New York, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were recognized by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in January of 2011 with their selections for the Hall. Their paths to baseball immortality took different courses and spanned much different eras, but each ended up earning baseball’s top honor. Despite playing in Cleveland decades apart, the two Hall of Famers’ pasts were uniquely entwined with one another.

Blyleven was dangerously close to the end of his eligibility life cycle, as the ballot for the class of 2011 was his 14th attempt to gain entrance to Cooperstown. He would have had just one more opportunity through the BBWAA before he would have had to entrust the Veterans Committee to hang a plaque of him where it belonged. His road to the Hall seemed aided by a statistical campaign comparing him favorably to other pitchers previously enshrined, which may have been enough to push him to the 79.7% of the vote he received to make his Hall trip possible as a member and not as a patron. He had earned 74.2% the previous ballot.

Blyleven was a baseball lifer, spending 22 seasons on Major League mounds for five different organizations. He was born in the Netherlands before his family moved to Saskatoon, Canada, and then later to the United States. After his playing career, he entered into a successful broadcast career with the Minnesota Twins.

He was a third round pick by the Twins in the 1969 draft and was called up to the Majors midway through the next season at the age of 19, starting a stretch of ten straight seasons with at least ten wins to begin his career. He was an All-Star for the first time in 1973, when he went 20-17 with a 2.52 ERA in 40 starts.

He was dealt to the Texas Rangers in 1976 with another Twin for four players and $250,000. He lobbed over 200 innings in just 24 starts in the final four months of the season and spent all of the next year with the team, ending his season with a no-hitter on September 22nd, before the Rangers traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of a four-team, eleven-player swap.

He gave Pittsburgh the experienced pitcher that they needed for the postseason in 1979, throwing a complete game win in the NLCS against Cincinnati before earning a win in the World Series against Baltimore. He remained with the Pirates through the 1980 season, but was dealt after to the Indians with Manny Sanguillen for Gary Alexander, Victor Cruz, Bob Owchinko, and Rafael Vasquez.

His Cleveland years were shortened by the strike in 1981 and an elbow injury the next season. He was 11-7 in 20 games in the shortened season, posting a 2.88 ERA. He was limited to a 2-2 record in four starts in 1982 and was 7-10 in 24 starts in 1983. By 1984, he resembled the Blyleven of old, going 19-7 with a 2.87 ERA in 33 games, throwing 12 complete games and four shutouts while finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He would represent the Indians in the All-Star game in 1985, but would be dealt on August 1st to Minnesota for Jay Bell, Curt Wardle, Jim Weaver, and Rich Yett. He finished the season a combined 17-16 in 37 starts, totaling 24 complete games and five shutouts while leading the league in strikeouts and innings pitched and again finishing third in the Cy voting.

He earned his second World Series title with the Twins in 1987. He was dealt to the California Angels following the 1988 season in a five-player swap and would remain with the club through the 1992 season. He re-signed with the Twins in the offseason for one last hoorah, but did not make the club.

He finished his career with 287 wins and ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts with 3,701 and ninth with 60 career shutouts. His number 28 was retired by the Twins a week prior to his induction.

It was the time in Texas that first brought the paths of Blyleven and Alomar together.

In 1977, one of Blyleven’s teammates with the Rangers was Sandy Alomar Sr., the father of a pair of future Indians stars in Roberto and Sandy Alomar Jr. Blyleven’s sons would play with the Alomar boys in the clubhouse at old Arlington Stadium during that summer.

Blyleven’s son Todd pitched for seven seasons in the minors for the Angels, Pirates, and Brewers organizations before becoming a scout for the Angels and Rockies. The Alomar brothers grew up in and around the game of baseball, coming up in the same San Diego Padres farm system, and later reuniting in Cleveland where they spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons playing with the Indians.

“From the time Robbie was a little boy, you could see the athleticism and baseball skills were all there,” Blyleven shared on the day of their shared induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “But that game I played against him [July 4th, 1992], I don’t know about that triple, I thought I struck him out three times.”

The trickster Blyleven’s memory of the events might be skewed slightly by the years – he did get Alomar to fly out to center in the first, but gave up a triple in the third and a walk in the fifth. Alomar’s Blue Jays got the better of Blyleven’s Angels that day, with first place Toronto taking home an 8-6 win at the Skydome.

Alomar was signed by the San Diego Padres in 1985 and debuted late in April of 1988 at the age of 20. He quickly became one of the best in the game, but would not do it in southern California as after his first All-Star season in 1990, he was dealt with former Indians outfielder Joe Carter to the Blue Jays for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez.

He spent five years in Toronto, making five straight All-Star trips, winning five Gold Gloves at second base, and taking home a Silver Slugger award in 1992. More important than the hardware he earned in-season might be the three consecutive playoff trips he and his Blue Jays made from 1991 to 1993. They lost to the eventual champs, the Twins, in the ALCS in 1991. He was the MVP of the ALCS in 1992 as the Jays knocked off Oakland before defeating Atlanta in the World Series. Toronto would repeat the next season, winning over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Alomar left Canada following the 1995 season and joined the Baltimore Orioles, where he made three more All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves, and won one more Silver Slugger award while appearing in the postseason in two of his three seasons with the club. He joined the Indians in 1999 as a free agent and reunited with his brother Sandy while putting together arguably his best three offensive seasons in his career while Cleveland made ALDS appearances in his first and last seasons with the club. Following the 2001 campaign, he was dealt to the New York Mets. He spent parts of two seasons there and with the Chicago White Sox and also appeared with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004.

He ended his 17-year career with a .300 batting average. He was named to 12 straight All-Star teams starting in 1990 through his final season in Cleveland. He was the recipient of ten Gold Glove awards at second base.

He received 73.7% of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 2010, when only Andre Dawson earned the nod from the BBWAA. That total jumped to 90% in his second year. He was the first player from the Toronto and Arizona clubs to be elected to the Hall and the first to go in as a Blue Jay. The Jays retired his number 12 in the days after the ceremony.

Alomar had a similar story with the third member of the Hall of Fame class of 2011, Pat Gillick. The longtime MLB general manager had the opportunity to meet Alomar during his childhood, when Roberto’s father was a member of the New York Yankees while Gillick was the club’s scouting coordinator.

“Pat Gillick has been a part of my life for many years,” said Alomar in a conference call after the Hall of Fame announcement. “When I was 16 years old, he tried to sign me for the Toronto Blue Jays, but I signed with the Padres instead. Then he traded for me and gave me an opportunity to play. Pat has been a mentor to me. It will be an honor to go into the Hall of Fame at the same time he does.”

Gillick also worked for the Jays, Orioles, Mariners, and Phillies prior to his selection by the post-expansion era Veterans Committee.

While several former Indians players have graced the ballots in recent years, including Jeff Kent and Mark Grudzielanek this season, it may be a few more years still until the next former Tribesman heads to Cooperstown as a new member.

Photo: AP file photo

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