For years Bert Blyleven has been known as a pitcher with "stuff"—perhaps the best curveball in the game and a live fastball, too. Now he has some live loot. Last week he more than doubled his share of it by escaping from the Minnesota Twins, who probably were going nowhere as usual, to the Texas Rangers, who are contending for the lead in the American League West. Blyleven had spent his major league career with the Twins. Joining them in 1970 at age 19, he won 99 games and lost 90, compiled a fine 2.80 ERA and meanwhile formed a low opinion of Owner Calvin Griffith's generosity.
Following the 1974 season Blyleven and Griffith went to arbitration over the pitcher's salary. Blyleven put his worth at $85,000 a year, Griffith at $65,000. The arbitrator said $65,000 it is. This year Blyleven was playing out his option. In the deal with the Rangers (Blyleven and Shortstop Danny Thompson for Texas Pitcher Bill Singer, Shortstop Roy Smalley, Infielder Mike Cubbage and minor league Pitcher Jim Gideon), Blyleven gets about $500,000 in salary and deferred payments under a three-year contract, or some $166,000 a year. First time out for Texas, Blyleven was defeated 3-2 by Detroit in a taut 11-inning game in which he went all the way.
In his last appearance with the Twins, Blyleven passed the 1,700-inning mark and got his 1,400th strikeout, but he was defeated 3-2 by the Angels and saluted the spectators with an unfond gesture as he left the mound. "I couldn't care less about the fans," he reportedly said afterward. "Maybe I should flip them every game and that would bring more fans to the park. Maybe that fat [censored] Griffith would have some more money to pay us with."
Prompted by the league, Blyleven later expressed "deep regret" over his "hasty and thoughtless" gesture, but by then he was on the way to Arlington and a new set of fans. However, what was really at issue was not Blyleven's bad manners or the size of his paycheck, but whether he might now become the big winner so many think he ought to be.
The fact is, as Blyleven candidly admits, he has a low distraction threshold. Take another recent game against the Angels. In the first inning Blyleven stepped off the mound and reached down for the resin bag. He needed the resin bag less than he did a moment of solitary concentration. He had two outs, a runner on second and Bobby Bonds at bat. The resin bag felt strange in his hand. He tossed it away. He stared at Bonds and began his motion. Bonds lined a curve-ball to center to score the runner.
"I was thinking about the resin bag," says Blyleven. "It's so easy for me to lose my concentration. Sometimes it's something that happens before a game. Mostly it's something during a game. If things are going easily for me I start to think ahead a few batters, maybe to the end of the game and what I'm going to say to the reporters after I pitch a shutout.
"Sometimes I lose my concentration when the team makes an error behind me and I worry about it, or maybe when I get the signs to make three pickoff attempts in a row. After I throw over the third time I'm thinking how stupid it all was. My mind's gone now and I'm not thinking of anything but those pickoffs. The only way I can get my concentration back is if a batter misses a hanging curve-ball and wakes me up, or maybe hits a home run. It's tough to get it back, you know, because when you lose it you don't know you've lost it."
In the earlier game against the Angels, Blyleven brought his own resin bag out to the mound in the second inning. This seemed to have a calming effect and he got three strikeouts that inning, and went on to a 5-2, 12-strikeout victory. He also struck out Bonds twice. "Bert's got the stuff of a 20-game winner," said Bonds. "He is a 20-game winner whether he wins 20 games or not."
So far Blyleven has won 20 only once, in 1973, when he lost 17. He has always hovered around .500: 10-9, 16-15, 17-17 twice. This year he is 4-6, with a 2.97 ERA. Being close to his 100th win is an unusual accomplishment for a 25-year-old, but less than satisfactory for this 218-pounder, considering his stuff.
If Blyleven's parts have seemed greater than the whole, he attributes it to his struggles with a mediocre team. But as Dick Williams, the manager of the Angels, says, "I've seen a lot of pitchers who never had Blyleven's stuff win 20 games with teams a lot worse. Some pitchers pitch just good enough to win, whether it's 1-0 or 9-8, and others always seem to pitch just good enough to lose."
When Blyleven does lose, his downfalls seem to occur in the late innings. For this he has blamed the Twins' relievers. Given a better bullpen, he claims "I would have 40 more career victories."
But many baseball people believe his late-inning reversals have been mostly his own doing. "Bert throws basically two pitches," says Bonds, "a hard fastball and a hard curveball. Everything comes in at the same speed, so sooner or later you can get your timing down. It takes a few innings and by then maybe Bert's lost a bit off his fastball. It starts to flatten out. And maybe in later innings his curveball will hang every so often."
Dick Williams concurs. He says Blyleven throws too many curves. Any hitter stands a better chance of connecting with a curveball if he sees it 10 or 12 times a game instead of six or seven. If Blyleven would throw more fastballs or a greater variety of pitches, his good stuff would be even better.
"The best pitchers I've ever seen," says Gene Mauch, the Twins' manager, "have their best stuff about 10 or 12 times a year. The great ones know how to win anyway. Blyleven goes to the mound with his best stuff more consistently than any pitcher I ever saw. So his attitude is 'My stuff will take care of me.' "
In that win over the Angels, for instance, whenever Blyleven was in a jam in the later innings he simply threw seven or eight curveballs in a row. Since the curve was exceptional that night, he got out of trouble. On another night, with lesser stuff, he might have been beat.
One could argue that Blyleven's physical talent has spoiled him, made him lazy mentally, so that he has avoided the necessity of really learning his craft. Jim Palmer once said of him, "There's no telling how good a pitcher Blyleven will become when he learns how to pitch."
Gene Mauch sums up Blyleven's problems by saying, "It's like a baseball player playing golf for the first time. Say he's faced with a 10-foot putt. He concentrates, tries to concentrate anyway, and then misses it. Afterward he says he lost his concentration. Well, he didn't. He was concentrating, but he just didn't know what to concentrate on."