Journey’s end

Bert Blyleven awed by trip to Hall of Fame

May 03, 2011
Bert Blyleven stopped to admire fellow Twins legend Harmon Killebrew's plaque during his visit Tuesday. (Marilu Lopez Fretts/National Baseball Hall of Fame)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The distance between Zeist, Netherlands and Cooperstown, N.Y. is about 3,600 miles, an amazing journey that finds Bert Blyleven still trying to comprehend.

For the Dutch-born Blyleven, a pitcher elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Jan. 5 on his 14th try on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, Tuesday was his third trip to Cooperstown but his first since he joined the game's most exclusive fraternity.

In town for his Hall of Fame Orientation Tour, along with wife Gayle, a curious Blyleven, dressed casually with jeans, sneakers and a jacket emblazoned with a Minnesota Twins logo, toured the Museum's three floors with Hall of Fame Senior Director of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl.

"If you are a history buff and you love the game of baseball like I do, then you're in heaven," Blyleven said after the tour was over. "I always say I'd like to go back in a time capsule and see how the game was played back when Cy Young or Walter Johnson pitched. Here you get a sense of that just by going by and seeing the jerseys that they wore and the baseballs that were used back then."

Blyleven used longevity and a wicked curveball, considered to be one of the toughest to hit in the history of the game, to forge career emblazoned with numerous accomplishments. The lanky right-hander pitched 22 major league seasons with the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and California Angels, compiling a 287-250 record with a 3.31 ERA, 242 complete games, 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts in 4,969 1/3 innings.

And though Blyleven's numbers rank with the best moundsmen the national pastime has ever produced, he jokingly added that he may have been elected to the Hall years earlier if not for some forgotten statistics that would have helped him reach some milestones.

"I would have liked to have pitched 5,000 innings, I wanted 300 wins, I wanted 4,000 strikeouts, I wanted to keep pitching but I went as far as I could with it before it was time out," he said. "But in my mind they never counted my Little League wins. If they had I would have had over 300 wins, over 5,000 innings pitched and over 4,000 strikeouts. I blame the writers for letting it go that long."

As one of only 12 foreign born players in the Cooperstown institution ("I'm the first Dutchman and very proud of that."), the odds were stacked against Blyleven standing on the Hall of Fame induction stage, along with fellow electees Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick on Sunday, July 24.

"I think it's a Dutch stubbornness. You take the good with the bad. I came up at a young age and I retired at an old age. I was one of only a few pitchers to win a game before they turned 20 and after they turned 40," Blyleven said. "I think as a young kid coming from Holland and then coming to the United States when I was six years old, we all have dreams as kids but you don't know where your dreams are going to take you.

"But falling in love with baseball in Southern California, having a dad that built a mound in the backyard and allowed me to break some windows sometimes when I was a little bit on the wild side and accepted that, I didn't know how high I could go," he added. "I knew it was going to be a long road, but I came up very quickly and I got to play a kid's game. That's the way I look at it. And that's what this Museum is all about – it's a kid's place. It's a paradise right here. If you love the game of baseball you've go to come here."

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum