Blyleven laughing all the way to Hall
NEW YORK -- The "Call" -- and yes, the "C" warrants upper-case treatment in this case -- came to Bert Blyleven on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. some 25 minutes earlier than he had been told it would -- if it came at all. He hesitated out of anxiety and superstition and answered on the ninth ring. His first subsequent move after learning his baseball identity had been permanently changed was to call his mother. He had the sense his late father was listening on an Other Side party line.
The Call came to Roberto Alomar at 1:15 p.m. To him, it was one year later than he had been told to expect it. He would use the word "finally" Thursday as he described his Wednesday-afternoon experience, his impatience with the process showing a tad. Immediately after he was told he, too, had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he, too, called his mother.
We've heard of "Christmas in July" celebrations staged by those who turn the summer calendar prematurely. Wednesday was Mother's Day in January. And Hallmark didn't have a card for it.
We knew about Alomar's father long before Robbie was elected. Little Sandy, the former second baseman, has served as an exacting tutor for scores of big league infielders and two sons. Sandy Sr. could teach a manatee to play second base and a walrus how to turn a DP. He taught his sons well.
But what do we know about the man who gave Rik Aalbert his surname back in the Netherlands in 1951? Joe Blyleven didn't play. He came to appreciate baseball only after he had moved his family from their native home to Canada, and to Southern California and reunited with his Dodgers-fan brother, Cor. But he didn't know much more than playing catch and he probably would have fallen for the favorite question asked of baseball neophytes -- "Do you know who has the key to the batter's box?"
How much credit could the elder Blyleven be due for his son's baseball success, for his boy's development of the curveball that prompted an epidemic of jelly legs among right-handed hitters in the big leagues from 1970-92?
The nose-to-toes curve that Bert Blyleven threw was essentially self-taught. Sandy Koufax was an unwitting tutor. Koufax threw the curve, Vin Scully described for SoCal's radio audience, nobody hit it and Blyleven imitated it.
All his father provided was the canvas backyard target -- and enough encouragement to fill three Astrodomes or five Fenway Parks, and a work ethic that wouldn't fit in Chavez Ravine.
"He told me to work hard," Blyleven said Thursday. "I delivered papers as a kid. I worked nights when I was in high school."
And when a group of Minnesota Twins wannabes were asked "Who wants to play winter ball?" the same right hand that years later would dominate Reggie Jackson -- 49 strikeouts and a .216 average in 140 at-bats -- shot up.
|Roberto Alomar (2)||523||90.0|
|Bert Blyleven (14)||463||79.7|
|Barry Larkin (2)||361||62.1|
|Jack Morris (12)||311||53.5|
|Lee Smith (9)||263||45.3|
|Jeff Bagwell (1)||242||41.7|
|Tim Raines (4)||218||37.5|
|Edgar Martinez (2)||191||32.9|
|Alan Trammell (10)||141||24.3|
|Larry Walker (1)||118||20.3|
|Mark McGwire (5)||115||19.8|
|Fred McGriff (2)||104||17.9|
|Dave Parker (15)||89||15.3|
|Don Mattingly (11)||79||13.6|
|Dale Murphy (13)||73||12.6|
|Rafael Palmeiro (1)||64||11.0|
|Juan Gonzalez (1)||30||5.2|
|Harold Baines (5)||28||4.8|
|John Franco (1)||27||4.6|
|Kevin Brown (1)||12||2.1|
|Tino Martinez (1)||6||1.0|
|Marquis Grissom (1)||4||0.7|
|Al Leiter (1)||4||0.7|
|John Olerud (1)||4||0.7|
|B.J. Surhoff (1)||2||0.3|
|Bret Boone (1)||1||0.2|
|Benito Santiago (1)||1||0.2|
|Carlos Baerga (1)||0||0|
|Lenny Harris (1)||0||0|
|Bobby Higginson (1)||0||0|
|Charles Johnson (1)||0||0|
|Raul Mondesi (1)||0||0|
|Kirk Rueter (1)||0||0|
Joe Blyleven was a tradesman. "He straighted bumpers all his life," the right-hander said of his father. But he was a constant presence at any game his son pitched.
"My dad was a supporter," Blyleven said, "and a real umpire chaser. He was one of those guys ... if he didn't get off the school grounds, we'd forfeit."
The elder Blyleven died in 2004, prompting a degree of disappointment his son still endures. The pitcher thought he had Hall of Fame credentials long before his father passed away. He knew his dad would have reveled in the Hall of Fame election of his son. The final six years of Blyleven's 14-year wait were frustrating enough; the first eight seemed significantly longer.
Blyleven's father had an effect on his sense of humor as well. "He'd work all day and come home to seven children and he always had a joke," Blyleven said.
He liked to laugh when he reached the big leagues. His material wasn't standup, instead he was a prankster, a leading practitioner of the hot foot and other tricks.
He and Pirates teammates Jim Rooker once stole all of the popsicles of the perpetually unhappy John Milner before a game. Rooker brought one to the bench during the game, and when Milner inquired where it had come from, he was told of a clubhouse cooler with many of his favorite treats in it.
So was Blyleven. Wearing a mask.
That Milner saw no good humor in the prank made everyone else laugh even more.
Blyleven's humor was on display Thursday when he and Alomar made their first public appearances as Hall of Fame designates at a news conference at the Waldorf-Astoria. After a Latino reporter asked a lengthy question to Alomar -- in Spanish -- Blyleven pre-empted his classmate: "Let me answer that."
Later, after Alomar had been made aware of election celebrations in his native Puerto Rico, Blyleven was asked about any commotion in the Netherlands. "Which block," was his dry reply.
He had that sort of reputation with each of his five teams. "Fun-loving" didn't quite cover it. Neither did mischievous.
Blyleven is going to enjoy the time between election and induction as much as any inductee, it seems. That might have been true even if he hadn't been elected. His view of life comes from a happy perspective. He was asked Thursday what words he would prefer to see on his Hall of Fame plaque.
"He loved the game" was his response. Then he offered a revision. "He loves the game," he said. "... I still do."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.