Bert Blyleven addresses the ball. "Hello, ball," he says, in homage to Art Carney as Ed Norton. Thereupon he drives the addressee 250 yards straight down the middle of the No. 1 fairway at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. The First Annual Blyleven Celebrity Golf Classic, to benefit Students Against Drunk Driving and the Orange County Trauma Society, is under way.
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 1985 issue
The day is cold and drizzly and awfully close to miserable, and if the setting didn't happen to include palm trees and the swell Riviera clubhouse, one might think one were in....
"Hey, Bert, where'd you get the weather?" shouts someone from a passing golf cart.
"Brought it in from Cleveland," comes the host's reply.
This isn't a tournament along the ropes of, say, the Hope or the Crosby. At the Blyleven the biggest celebrity, literally and figuratively, is Lou Ferrigno, television's erstwhile Incredible Hulk. The Hulk, whose wife wonders where the galleries are, quits after two holes because his shoes are wet. "It was nice of him to come anyway," says Blyleven.
It's also nice of Blyleven to host this tournament. During the winter there are many of these Monday events in the Los Angeles area. Blyleven has put on more than his share in the past, for a variety of causes, and this is his second of the current off-season. One of his best friends is Richie Scheinblum, the former outfielder for six big league teams, who as a Kansas City Royal battled Rod Carew for the batting title in 1972. Scheinblum's son, Monte, who's active in SADD at Villa Park High School in Villa Park, Calif., asked Blyleven if he'd help him organize a tournament. Blyleven was happy to oblige.
Blyleven rounded up the usual suspects, most of them baseball names past and present: Scheinblum, Dan Petry, Ed Roebuck, Enos Cabell, Norm and Larry Sherry, Rick Rhoden, Ken McMullen, Buck Rodgers, Jim Colborn, Bruce Kison, Tom Murphy, Tom Brunansky, Dee Fondy, Jim Slaton, Gary Sutherland, Matt Young, Ed Crosby, Tim Leary, Tom Morgan...sorry, it's just that some people like to see baseball cards come to life.
The tournament follows a scramble format, in which all four team members play from the same lie, as determined by the foursome's best previous shot. Blyleven, who has a seven handicap, is teamed with a couple of Cadillac dealers and an attorney, a zany Mormon named Tom Anthony. This is Anthony's first time on a golf course in 10 years, and second time ever. Naturally, he sinks all the birdie putts. "Golf is my life," Anthony keeps saying. The team finishes at 3-under and out of hunt. But nobody really cared.
Blyleven cared more that everyone was having a good time. He chatted up all the passing foursomes and made sure the volunteer marshals switched holes so they wouldn't get bored. Watching him, one of his partners said, "He seems like a great guy. I know this sounds terrible, but who does Bert pitch for these days?"
For the benefit of those who don't know—and it's quite understandable so don't feel ashamed—Blyleven, a right-hander, pitches for the Cleveland Indians.
And quite well, thank you. Last year he had 19 wins, seven losses and a dozen ties. "It was an off year for ties," says Blyleven. He's referring to neckties. An inveterate practical joker, Blyleven likes to snip cravats. One of his favorite marks is Indians public relations director Bob DiBiasio. "Bert got six of mine last year," says DiBiasio. "I have to say this for him, though. He always goes out and buys me a new one. Of course, it's never as nice as the one he cut."
Blyleven, 33, is such a cutup, in fact, that he recently cut off his five-year-old beard. This past baseball season he merely cut up American League batters, finishing as the third-leading vote getter in the Cy Young Award balloting, behind relievers Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry. He tied for second in the league in wins and was second in winning percentage (.731), third in ERA (2.87) and fourth in strikeouts (170). He also tied for third in shutouts, with four, and for fourth in complete games, with 12.
What makes his statistics even more impressive is that he missed five starts after he broke a bone in his right foot; while shagging flies in the Milwaukee outfield in May, he stepped on a ball hiding in the grass. In his seven losses, the Indians scored only six runs.
After getting his 18th win, Blyleven talked Cleveland Manager Pat Corrales into letting him pitch again with only three days' rest, and he won No. 19 7-4 over the Twins on the last day of the season. He left in the eighth to a standing ovation from the Municipal Stadium faithful, 8,239 strong.
For some reason it has taken Blyleven 3,422 ‚Öî innings, 468 games, 195 wins, 15 years and four teams to be appreciated.
A banquet in a Riviera dining room follows the golf tournament, and Blyleven, nattily dressed in a camel's hair sports coat, navy blue trousers, blue shirt and uncut tie, is the master of ceremonies. He is very much at ease on the podium as he describes various raffle prizes, calls off winning numbers and awards golf trophies.
"We have a beautiful cutlery set. Who has blue ticket 92594? Wait a minute. I do. Hmmm, I wanted the color TV.
"O.K., we've got a golf bag and a dozen balls. Brown ticket 58456? Who? Francisco the busboy? Francisco, come up here. Here you go. Hey, wait a minute, Francisco, where are you going? You've got work to do.
"This is for a free membership to Racquetball World. Blue 90672, raise your hand. Richie Scheinblum? You've got to be kidding. Richie, you don't even exercise. You don't need this."
During a lull at the banquet, Scheinblum talks about Blyleven. "Bert's always doing things for people," he says. "But I'll be grateful to him for one thing in particular. A couple of years ago when he was on the disabled list and back home, he came to watch my son Monte pitch. Monte tried to throw a curve, and something in his elbow snapped. Bert knew what had happened right away and got Monte's elbow in a bucket of ice. Saved him a lot of pain." As Blyleven wanders into earshot, Scheinblum says, "Of course, I feel very strongly that a person born in a foreign country should not be allowed to play in the major leagues."
Rik Aalbert Blyleven was born in Zeist, the Netherlands on April 6, 1951. His father, Joe, was a handyman who, during World War II, hid his future father-in-law from the Nazis so he wouldn't be put in a concentration camp. Joe's brother, Cor, had gone to the U.S. before the war, and because it was easier to enter from Canada than from Holland, the Blylevens emigrated to Saskatchewan when Bert was two. Joe worked on the railroads in Saskatoon and Regina and moved to California in 1955. There, he got a job straightening bumpers and brought his family down the next year. He also became a baseball fan.
One of seven children, Bert grew up in Garden Grove as American as, well, Dutch apple pie. He can't speak Dutch, but to this day he still understands a little of it. He also claims his heritage has something to do with his curveball, which is the one against which all others in the big leagues are judged. "We have those long, strong fingers," he says. "You know, from sticking our fingers in the dikes."
Bert also inherited a love of the Dodgers from his father; he worshiped two in particular, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. When the Angels came to nearby Anaheim in 1966, Bert didn't switch his allegiance, although he did become one of the stadium rats. "My friends and I used to wait until they turned the lights out in the park," he says. "Then we'd sneak down into the dugouts and grab whatever we could—resin bags and broken bats. We'd go from one dugout to the other, our backs pressed against the backstop while we heard the typewriters going in the press box. And then when everybody was gone, we'd go out to the mound and make believe. Finally we'd make like we were playing the outfield and jump over the fence in left."
He ran cross-country and played basketball and baseball at Santiago High School, and the baseball scouts began to come around. The Dodgers were ready to draft him in the first round in 1969, but in one of his last high school games, Blyleven got shelled. "There were 32 scouts in the stands at the start," he recalls. "Thirty-one of them must have left by the third inning." The one who didn't give up on him was Jesse Flores Sr. of Minnesota, and the Twins made Blyleven their third pick that June. He repaid some of his debt to Flores this off-season when he hosted a tournament to benefit the Hemophilia Foundation; Flores's grandson has that disease.
Even back in 1969 Blyleven had his sensational curve. Then he filled out, picked up some speed on his fastball and wowed batters in rookie and A ball. "When they asked us who wanted to play in the Instructional League in the fall of '69, I was the first one to raise my hand," he says. In the Florida Instructional League championship game, he beat the Indians 1-0 and was featured in a story in that year's Dec. 1 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. The only problem was that his name was published as "Blylevan," which is the way the Twins spelled it in those days.
Blyleven has always had trouble with his name. For years he thought his first name was Rikaalbert. It has also appeared as Ricalbert and Ribalbert. It wasn't until he got married in 1971 that he noticed on his birth certificate that he's really Rik Aalbert. Actually, the best spelling of his name appears on one of his license plates: BLY11.
In Blyleven's first spring training with the Twins, manager Bill Rigney watched him throw batting practice and yelled to his pitching coach, Marv Grissom, "Get him out of there. If I see anymore, I'll fall in love." Blyleven started the season in Triple A. The Twins ran short of pitching early, the crusher coming on June 1, when Luis Tiant was put on the disabled list. Blyleven, just 19, was called up to replace him. Blyleven had pitched only 21 games in the minors; by comparison, Dwight Gooden, last year's 19-year-old sensation, needed 38 games before he was brought up to the Mets.
On June 5, 1970, Rigney gave Blyleven his first start, against the Washington Senators. Before the game Blyleven went over to the lineup card and changed the spelling of his name from "Blylevan." He later wished he could have erased the 3-2 fastball he threw to the first batter he faced, Lee Maye. Maye hit it out of the park. Blyleven's third batter was Frank Howard. He got him to fly out. Blyleven went on to win the game 2-1, allowing five hits in seven innings and retiring the outsized Howard all three times he faced him. After the game Howard said, "He's got a fine arm. He knows how to pitch. It's hard to say anything based on one game, but he looks like he's got a great future ahead of him."
Blyleven, an intense competitor, wants it. He has to have it. He will do anything to get it.
What we're talking about here is a humongous stuffed panda, and he's auctioning off the bear at the banquet.
"I open the bidding at $200. Do we have $225? We do. I bid $250. Do I hear $275? O.K., I bid $300."
Blyleven raises every bid, and, finally, he says, "Sold to me. For $675."
He has lines around his eyes and a scar on the inside of his right elbow, testimony to the strain and pain of 15 years in the major leagues. But Blyleven is still a big kid at heart. His wife, Patty, has a sneaking suspicion that he wanted the panda for himself as much as for their four children, Todd, 12, Kimberly, 10, Timothy, 3, and Thomas, 17 months.
Blyleven married Patricia Ann Whitehead, a friend from high school, during his second season in the majors, and they have raised a happy family. In fact, the Blylevens feel so strongly about family living that they, and Anthony, have helped several baseball players and their wives to adopt children.
On a recent afternoon Blyleven went to see Todd play basketball for his seventh-grade team. Dad was made the timekeeper, and with a little creative use of the stopwatch he saw to it that his son's team got off the last shot at the end of each quarter, which was only fair because the referee was the father of a player on the opposing team. Blyleven mingled easily with the other parents. He took quiet pride in Todd's 10-point game, a performance that reminded one of a young Jack Sikma.
Blyleven and his Villa Park neighbors could probably win the American League West. "Doug DeCinces lives over here," says Blyleven. "Bob Boone is building a house over there, Enos Cabell lives in those hills." The Blyleven abode, one of many handsome houses on his street, should bear a plaque commemorating one of the best baseball lines of this decade. Two years ago, when brush fires swept through the surrounding hills, Blyleven ascended to his roof, to water it down lest a flying spark set it afire, and fell off, breaking his left elbow. Afterward he issued these immortal words: "I knew I'd never win the Cy Young Award, so I was trying to be Fireman of the Year."
The house has lots of toys, some for the kids, some for Bert. His miniature car is a favorite. He keeps a collection of baseball memorabilia in his study. Blyleven has a ball for every one of his regular-season major league victories, as well as for his win in the 1979 National League Championship Series for the Pirates and his '79 World Series victory over the Orioles. Blyleven's display includes his one no-hitter (win No. 122), his five one-hitters, his eight two-hitters and his five three-hitters. He also has balls from his 14 complete-game 1-0 victories, which put him third on the alltime list, tied with Christy Mathewson, behind Walter Johnson (an uncatchable 38) and Grover Cleveland Alexander (17).
Ball No. 48 is from a one-hitter Blyleven threw against the Kansas City Royals on May 24, 1973. The lone hit in that game was a bunt single by slow-footed Ed Kirkpatrick in the fifth inning. "I told our third baseman, Steve Braun, to watch for a bunt," says Blyleven, "but Spanky laid a perfect one down. I still kid him about it."
Kirkpatrick, 40, is sitting in the back of the dining room with his wife, Judy. A little more than three years ago he was in an automobile accident that put him in a wheelchair for life and left him unable to speak clearly. But because Kirkpatrick can see and hear, he watches and listens as Blyleven moves into the final part of the evening's program.
"We've got some baseball memorabilia donated to us by the players," Blyleven says, "and the money will go to help Ed Kirkpatrick back there. What have we got here? A Tom Murphy autographed glove. Not many of these around.... Sold for $200.
"A Carl Yastrzemski bat. Hmmm, no cork in it....
"An autographed picture of Fernando Valenzuela. Autographed in English. No takers? Sold to me for $25.
"I have here a ball autographed by Sandy Koufax, a pretty fair pitcher.... Mary Scheinblum bids $150; do I hear $175?" At which point Richie Scheinblum yells across the room to his wife, "We already have a Koufax ball!" She says, "So now we'll have two."
The curveball of the '50s belonged to Camilio Pascual. In the '60s, Koufax had it. Blyleven has reigned as the curveball champion longer than either Pascual or Koufax.
Blyleven's curve breaks so quickly and so far that some batters swear they can hear it change direction. He throws it a little differently than most pitchers, holding the ball so that every finger except his pinky is touching a seam. "Two pitchers that I know about who held it the way I do," says Blyleven, "were Koufax and Bob Feller."
Corrales feels the secret of Blyleven's curve is not in the grip but in his big, strong hands. "With his hands and wrist, he could throw that damn thing without any seams and it would curve," says Corrales.
Blyleven has ridden the curve to a career ERA of 3.00. He's fifth on the active list in shutouts, sixth in strikeouts, eighth in victories and eighth in innings pitched. One of the most remarkable things about Blyleven's career marks is that, of the active pitchers who rank ahead of him (Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman and Phil Niekro), the youngest is nearly five years older than he is. Given another five years of success, Blyleven will have Hall of Fame credentials.
Yet last year was the first time he ever got a vote for the Cy Young Award. He has had only one 20-win season, in 1973, the first year of the DH, when 12 American League pitchers won 20 or more. There are any number of reasons, starting with the fact that early in his career Blyleven relied too much on his ability to overpower hitters, especially late in the game. "He knows how to finish a game now," says Indian pitching coach Don McMahon.
Blyleven's first two teams, the Twins and Rangers, usually weren't very good, and even though the Pirates won the World Series in '79, Blyleven had some philosophical differences with manager Chuck Tanner. Pittsburgh thought so little of him that it traded him and Manny Sanguillen to Cleveland after the '80 season for Victor Cruz, Bob Owchinko, Rafael Vasquez and Gary Alexander.
Blyleven pitched very well for the Indians in the strike year of 1981 (11-7, 2.89 ERA), but in the first game after play resumed, he hurt his right elbow. He needed elbow surgery in '82 after throwing only 20‚Öì innings, and in '83 he missed most of the last two months with a right shoulder injury. Until last year, fate had not been overly kind to Blyleven.
But the injuries may have been a blessing in disguise, because they made him a better pitcher. When he was younger, his stuff was so good that he didn't need a changeup or pinpoint control. Now he throws an excellent change, an occasional slider, an assortment of fastballs and, of course, his curve. He's also not afraid to throw inside to a hitter.
Says Roy Smith, a rookie pitcher who dressed next to Blyleven last season, "Because his stuff is so good, it really doesn't do me any good to ask him what he throws to certain hitters. I have to ask him, 'Bert, what would you throw if you had my stuff?' "
Last year Blyleven was 4-0 with a 1.44 ERA against the American League West champion Royals. "If you gave baseball people their choice among Dan Petry, Jack Morris and Blyleven, Blyleven would probably be third," says Hal McRae, Kansas City's longtime designated hitter. "But if you had to have one pitcher to beat us, Blyleven would be the choice."
Royals manager Dick Howser is also a Blyleven fan. "I saw him when he was 19 and I've seen him now," Howser says. "There's not a lot of dropoff in his stuff. And now he has a little more command. He has all the stats of a potential Hall of Famer. Look at his hits to innings pitched [8.10 per nine innings], his walks to strikeouts [7.02 strikeouts and 2.47 walks per nine innings] and his ERA. Those stats hit me in the face."
Says Mike Ferraro, a K.C. coach who was Blyleven's manager in Cleveland for half a season, "He should win 30 games with the stuff he's got. He just hasn't played on too many clubs that scored a lot of runs for him."
It's like the fellow at the golf tournament said. Who does Bert pitch for these days?
"O.K., I've got a ball here signed by Henry Aaron. Hmmm, maybe I should bid on it. That way I know he won't lose it on me like he did that one time....
"Here's something special. A 1971 Milwaukee Brewers uniform, No. 16, worn by Ron Theobald. That may not mean much to you, but Ron Theobald is the only man in baseball history to go into the on-deck circle without his bat. Yes, he rubbed up his hands, went down for the bat, and it wasn't there!"
In the world of baseball—an image comes to mind here of a white planet with red seams and American League president Bobby Brown's signature on it—labels are very easy to put on and very hard to take off. Blyleven has often been labeled a troublemaker.
Ten years ago he took Twins owner Calvin Griffith to arbitration, and Griffith screamed. Blyleven wanted $85,000, which seems like a piddling sum now, and the Twins were offering $65,000. Things went so sour in Minnesota that in Blyleven's last game as a Twin, some fans serenaded him with "Goodby, Bert, we're glad to see you go." He responded with a flippant gesture. The Twins responded by trading him to the Texas Rangers.
In his parting shot, Blyleven called the Twins' fans "bleep bleep" and said, "They're behind you when you do good, and they turn on you when things go wrong. But bleep them. They have a right to act any way they like."
When he beat the Twins for Texas on July 26, 1976, Blyleven didn't mince words. "Aw bleep, that was for him [Griffith] and his family." In Texas, Blyleven got blamed for something he never did. The story went that the reason Eddie Stanky quit after one game as manager of the Rangers was that he went out to the mound to remove Blyleven from the game, and Byleven told him to go back to the dugout. Actually, Blyleven was suffering from a groin pull and eventually took himself out of the game. Stanky quit on his own.
Tanner is almost universally beloved, so Blyleven came out as the bad guy in Pittsburgh, especially after Tanner called him "Cryleven." They had a profound disagreement over how often Blyleven should pitch; he wanted to go every fourth game, and Tanner gave him the ball every fifth. Also, he felt that Tanner was pulling him from games too quickly. "I think the world of Chuck Tanner," says Blyleven now. "I just don't think he knew how to use me." Blyleven got so upset with his role in Pittsburgh that he walked out on the Pirates for 10 days early in 1980. "It was the worst time I've ever had in baseball," he says. "It finally ended when I was out in the back of the house, pulling weeds. Patty came out and said, 'Don't you think you should go back?' And I said, 'Yes.' "
One of the nicknames for a curveball is a "yakker." So it seems only fitting that Blyleven is something of a yakker. His heart is invariably in the right place—it's just that his foot sometimes ends up in his mouth.
Again last season he got embroiled in a couple of controversies. He argued vehemently with the official scorer and later phoned the league office when outfielder George Vukovich wasn't given an error on a play on which two earned runs scored. He also suggested publicly that the Indians might be better off trading him to a contender for younger talent—as they would soon do with his friend Rick Sutcliffe. Cleveland president Gabe Paul said, "Bert Blyleven isn't going anywhere. For two years we paid him a good salary, and he did nothing because he was hurt. Now he owes the Indians and the city of Cleveland something in return."
That upset Blyleven, especially because he has given of himself to Cleveland. He's celebrity chairman of the 65 Roses Club for Cystic Fibrosis there. And he couldn't help it if he was injured. Almost everybody says this of Blyleven: "He wants the ball." There aren't many higher compliments than that for any pitcher.
Because of his competitive streak, Blyleven says things he probably shouldn't, and he usually says them with a biting wit. For instance, he referred to Paul and Phil Seghi, the Indians' general manager, as "two old men sitting up in the booth playing checkers." But he's not a bad guy. "He's a great guy," says Judy Kirkpatrick. "I know Ed thinks the world of him."
The evening is winding down, and there are only a few more souvenirs left to be auctioned.
"Here's a ball autographed by the 1957 Milwaukee Braves. Let's look at some of the names. Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Joe Adcock, Eddie Mathews.... Sold for $150.
"And here's a ball signed by the 1984 Cleveland Indians. If you think you just heard some big names, listen to these. Steve Farr. Tom Waddell. Mike Jeffcoat. Jerry Willard. Bert Blyleven. Hey, these names might not seem too important now, but someday.... Do I hear $2?"
Not only does Blyleven pitch for the Indians, he actually likes being an Indian. He says, "Mister Paul and Mister Seghi [Mister?] have been very good to me, I like the way Pat manages, I think we've got a good, young club, and I'd like to be a part of a winning team in Cleveland. I just wish we had more fans. I also wish we were in the other division."
He's being serious, although whimsy soon bubbles to the surface. "What other team gets to wear a picture of its general manager on its jacket?" he asks. Blyleven is right—Phil Seghi looks uncannily like Chief Wahoo.
The Indians are happy to have him. Says Corrales, "You love sending a guy like that every fifth day, and he's a great influence on a young ball club. The kids see how hard he works. Plus, he keeps us loose."
When Blyleven and Sutcliffe were together in Cleveland, their teammates had to be on constant lookout for pranks. Even alone Blyleven is a terror, whether he's giving a hotfoot, tying clothes in knots, cutting neckties or pulling down McMahon's pants.
On the second-to-last weekend of the season, the Indian players had a little party to adjourn their kangaroo court. Blyleven went out and bought gifts for everyone. "The guys who were real cheap during the season got real cheap gifts," he says. Corrales got a bullwhip. Chris Bando, who loves pizza, was given an almost-empty pizza box. "We left one month-old piece in there, and I think Chris ate it." Julio Franco, who had been arrested the previous winter for possession of a gun without a permit, received a toy pistol. Neal Heaton got a Gourmet Nosepicker. Brett Butler was presented with an autographed picture of his favorite soap opera star. "I know that stuff sounds silly," says Smith. "But I thought it was kind of nice."
Blyleven wraps up the evening. "Thanks everyone for coming, and good night. Spanky, we love you."
Ed Kirkpatrick smiles.