Pitcher Bert Blyleven tours Baseball Hall of Fame

It didn’t take long for Bert Blyleven to feel at home in the

Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. As soon as he sat down in the

Grandstand Theater, the notorious prankster was in high gear.

”I gave up a home run over there,” Blyleven said Tuesday as he

stared at a wall of the theater, a replica of Chicago’s old

Comiskey Park. ”The first time I pitched there I had a shutout

going and Ed Herrmann hit a home run and the scoreboard went off.

It scared the heck out of me. I liked it so much I gave up home

runs (there) over the years just to make it go off.”

This was the third trip to Cooperstown for the former

right-hander, who won World Series titles with the Pittsburgh

Pirates (1979) Minnesota Twins (1987), and it was like none other.

It was a preparatory stroll through history ahead of his

long-awaited induction in July. Blyleven, who will go in with Pat

Gillick and Roberto Alomar, was elected on his 14th try in January

and still hasn’t come down from Cloud Nine.

”There’s still disbelief,” Blyleven, 60, said as he sat near

where his plaque will hang in the Hall of Fame gallery. ”I think

once I come here (in July) and then all of a sudden I check into

the Otesaga Hotel … and Hall of Famers are already there, it’ll

be like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ It’ll be exciting. I’m

going to be in awe. I’m just glad I’m on this side of the

grass.”

Blyleven, the first player from Holland to be voted in, finally

crossed the 75-percent threshold, receiving votes on 79.7 percent

of the ballots. It was a long climb after receiving only 14.1

percent of the vote in 1999, his second year of eligibility. But

his 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts ultimately proved to be too

great to ignore, despite a 287-250 record and a lack of a Cy Young

Award that critics pointed to.

Blyleven, who signed with Minnesota in 1969, ranks first on the

Twins’ career list in complete games (141), shutouts (29) and

strikeouts (2,035), and is second in wins (149) and innings pitched

(2,566 2-3). He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970

for Minnesota, and also played for Pittsburgh, Cleveland,

California, and Texas in his 22 seasons.

The Twins will retire his No. 28 jersey when they hold Bert

Blyleven Day a week before his induction. He’ll be the sixth Twin

with his number retired, joining Harmon Killebrew (No. 3), Rod

Carew (No. 29), Tony Oliva (No. 6), Kent Hrbek (No. 14) and Kirby

Puckett (No. 34).

True to his fun-loving character, Blyleven had an explanation

for his long wait. Though the major league record book shows he

never made it to 5,000 innings pitched, failed to reach the magical

300-win total and fell short of 4,000 strikeouts, he blamed the

writers for an obvious oversight.

”They never (counted) Little League, high school, Pony League,

(and American) Legion ball,” he said. ”They should have added all

that together.”

The self-effacing Blyleven, with his wife Gayle at his side, was

full of questions at every turn.

”When did players first get paid?” he asked curator Eric

Strohl as they looked at an exhibit with a baseball from a game in

1863 that ended with a score of 53-13. ”That sounds like some of

the games I pitched.”

Moments later, Blyleven took one look at a photo of Eddie Gaedel

and just shook his head. The 3-foot-7, 65-pound Gaedel, the only

midget to bat in major league history, was part of a stunt by St.

Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck in 1951 and walked on four pitches

from Detroit’s Bob Cain.

”He should have hit him,” Blyleven said. ”He could have saved

three pitches.”

Blyleven also marveled at the exploits of Hall of Fame pitchers

Cy Young, Christie Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Young won 511

games and Johnson had 110 shutouts, both major league records that

will never be surpassed.

”They had to pitch every other day,” Blyleven said. ”I always

say I’d like to go back in a time capsule and see how the game was

played back when Cy Young pitched, or Walter Johnson. Here you get

a sense of that.”

As amazing as Young and Johnson were, Blyleven also had a

tendency to awe fans. He allowed a major league record 50 home runs

in 1986 and 46 the next season – and he had an explanation for

that, too.

”I looked at those two years, the cows were in better shape

than they were ever before,” he said. ”The hide was thicker. I

think the farmers were actually walking the cattle. That’s why I

gave up so many home runs. The hide was thicker.”

Up in the library, Blyleven was shown pictures from his career

and then waxed nostalgic as he peered at a scorecard from 1869.

”That’s 5:45 p.m. It’s almost dark,” he said, noting the time

the game ended. ”I should have pitched then. I always pitched

better at night with the lights out.”

The tour ended with Blyleven walking through the gallery,

stopping to gaze at the plaques of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale,

Willie Stargell, Rod Carew, and tapping the top of former teammate

Kirby Puckett’s. Then he sat down not far from where his plaque

will hang, a satisfied smile on his face.

”There’s not a door near my plaque. My face is usually near a

door so everybody exits, and it’s not near a bathroom,” he

deadpanned one last time. ”No, I’m looking forward to it. I’m very

honored. It really hasn’t hit home and it probably won’t hit home

for a while, probably maybe induction weekend when I mess up my

speech and I realize I’m one of them.”