Nobody filled the back of a baseball card better than Bert Blyleven, whose name (Aalbert) and birthplace (Zeist) suggested—with alphabetical ambidexterity—that a whole encyclopedia was inside that 2�-by-3�-inch rectangle.
On the flip side of his early cards, there was often a cartoon: the Dutch-born Blyleven (in mid-windup, in wooden shoes) pitching at windmills, his curveball—the best of his generation—tracing a wild S-curve to home plate.
Gradually those cartoons were squeezed out by statistical columns, 22 lines for 22 major league seasons, most of them spent with an unholy trinity of teams: the Twins, the Rangers and the Indians of the '70s and mid-'80s. And still Blyleven, who retired in 1992, won 287 games. Even now, as Pete Rose narcissistically hijacks every Hall of Fame discussion, Blyleven should be a wooden shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
Except for this. "I think some writers don't realize how difficult it is to win a major league baseball game," says Blyleven, who lost 74 one-run games and 41 two-run games while carrying more clowns than a circus Beetle.
Had he won just 13 of those games, Blyleven would be a 300-game winner sitting still, at this very moment, while his mustache was cast in bronze. Instead, Blyleven—talking on his cellphone in Fort Myers, Fla.—is pumping gas. "Into my car," stresses the 52-year-old, who was fond of wearing, in his playing days, a T-shirt emblazoned, I [LOVE] FARTING.
For most of his life Blyleven found joy in joy buzzers and put the whoop in whoopie cushions. He was baseball's merriest prankster. But for one week every January, when the Hall of Fame vote is announced, life is more Mudville than vaudeville.
"I hear how I never won a Cy Young," says Blyleven, enumerating the knocks against him. "That I had only one 20-win season. People say I gave up too many home runs [430, seventh all-time]. Well, guess what? The alltime leader in home runs given up is Robin Roberts, and he's in the Hall of Fame."
Blyleven ranks fifth in career strikeouts. (Everyone else in the top 10 is or will be in the Hall of Fame.) He ranks ninth in shutouts. (Everyone else in the top 13 is in.) He ranks eighth all-time in games started. (Everyone else in the top 12 but sixth-ranked Tommy John is in.) And he ranks 13th alltime in innings pitched. (Everyone else in the top 16 is in.) It's enough to make a man start sniffing his armpits.
When he did make the postseason, Blyleven went 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA and played with two World Series winners, the Pirates in 1979 and the Twins in '87
After seven years on the ballot Blyleven has eight more chances. He needs 75% of the vote and last week got 35%—6% more than a year ago. But he's playing Beat the Clock. His father is 77, beset by Parkinson's and incipient Alzheimer's. "If I do go in," says Blyleven, "I hope my dad is still with us and knows that his dedication, hard work and dreams helped me fulfill my dreams."