COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Bert Blyleven knows what took him to where he’s been and where he’s headed — his heritage.
“I’m Dutch, I’m stubborn. I think it’s the stubbornness, the consistency. You take the good with the bad,” said the 60-year-old Blyleven, the first player born in the Netherlands to earn Major League Baseball’s highest honor, election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I came up at a young age. I retired at an old age. I was one of only three pitchers to win a game before their 20th (birthday) and after their 40th. It’s just loving a game that you felt that you could compete at the highest level.”
Blyleven, who won 287 games in a 22-year major league career, will be inducted July 24 with infielder Roberto Alomar and front-office guru Pat Gillick.
“I’m going to be in awe,” Blyleven said. “We all have dreams as kids. You don’t know where it’s going to head.”
Also to be honored in a July 23 ceremony at Doubleday Field are: Dave Van Horne, longtime play-by-play man for the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins, who will be given the Ford C. Frick Award for major contributions to baseball broadcasting; Philadelphia Daily News sports writer and columnist Bill Conlin, winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball wr iting; and Roland Hemond, who will receive the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.
The awards ceremony will feature a performance by singer/songwriter Terry Cashman, whose classic “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey and The Duke)” released 30 years ago paid homage to the three great New York center fielders of the 1950s.
Though he lost 250 games, Blyleven threw 60 shutouts (ninth all time) and logged 242 complete games, finishing his career in 1992 with 3,701 strikeouts (fifth all time). He also made 685 starts (11th all time), pitched 4,969 1-3 innings (14th all time), and was 3-0 in League Championship Series play and 2-1 in World Series games.
His sojourn was longer than most.
Born in 1951 in Zeist, Netherlands, his parents, Joe and Jenny, moved the family to Canada two years later.
“My dad’s eventual goal was get to the United States, but it was hard back in the early 1950s,” Blyleven said. “The Canadian government was looking for strong men to work on farms. Holland gave my parents $79 and we went to Canada.”
The family stayed for four years before moving to Southern California, where Blyleven’s uncle had settled. The Blylevens lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Paramount, then moved to Garden Grove when he was in third grade.
“The friends that I started hanging out with played Little League. I didn’t know what it was,” Blyleven recalled. “I started out as a catcher at about 10 years old. My manager I guess realized that I was throwing the ball back harder to the pitcher than he was throwing to me, so he said, ‘Would you like to pitch?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So I tried it and fell in love with it.”
It wasn’t long before Joe Blyleven built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard, laying the foundation for his son’s Hall of Fame career.
Although he didn’t throw a curveball until he was 14 — “My dad understood that I shouldn’t throw a curve until I was a teenager and he was a big, strong man, so I listened.” — Blyleven mastered the art better than most. And he did it through the art of visualization, watching and listening to broadcaster Vin Scully describe Dodgers star left-hander Sandy Koufax’s drop.
“I also learned that everything keys off my fastball,” Blyleven said. “People talk about my curveball, but it was control of my fastball (that made me effective). And I learned that from sitting on a bench with (former Dodger great) Don Drysdale when I was very young — about pitching inside, pitching both sides of the plate and being a bulldog on the mound.”
Drafted by Minnesota in the third round of the 1969 amateur draft, Blyleven became youngest pitcher in the majors when the Twins called him up June 2, 1970, after just 21 minor league starts.
“Really, when I signed I didn’t know how high I could go,” Blyleven said. “I knew it was going to be a long road.”
That long road included stops with the Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and California Angels. Blyleven also had a second stint with the Twins beginning in 1985, and two years later he formed an imposing duo at the top of the rotation with lefty Frank Viola. The team scrapped its way to 85 wins and a World Series title, the second for Blyleven (he also was on the cham pion 1979 Pirates).
Despite his considerable accomplishments on the field, Blyleven, who’s also served 15 years as an analyst for the Twins, watched and waited for what must have seemed like a lifetime before he was selected. It took 14 tries for him to finally cross the 75 percent threshold, receiving votes on 79.7 percent of the ballots in the results released in January.
It was a long climb after receiving only 14.1 percent of the vote in 1999, his second year of eligibility, and the death of his dad in 2004 of Parkinson’s disease only heightened the hurt Blyleven felt.
“At first he was angry and he kind of vented, but after a while we got to where it was like a given,” said Blyleven’s wife, Gayle. “So we’d tell the local people we were out of town and we weren’t.
“We didn’t want to hear about the disappointment. (In 2010) we were so surprised that he jumped so high we weren’t angry at all. It was amazing. It just shows you how the writers have your destiny and how hard it is (to get in).”
Alomar also had to bide his time, but for a very different reason and not nearly so long.
Born into a baseball family — Alomar’s father, Sandy, was an infielder who played 15 years in the major leagues and his older brother, Sandy Jr., forged a 20-year big-league career as a catcher — Alomar grew up in the presence of big leaguers. And instead of horsing around in the dugout as a kid, he absorbed everything he saw and heard at the ballpark.
That paid off when he signed in 1985 with the San Diego Padres as a 17-year-old. Three years later, on April 22, 1988, Alomar made his major league debut memorable when he singled off future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in his first at-bat in the majors.
Two years later, Alomar was an All-Star for the first time, and that’s when Gillick, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, stepped in and made the signature trade of his standout career. Gillick sent Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to the Padres in exchange for Alomar and Joe Carter in a blockbuster deal in December 1990.
With the switch-hitting Alomar at the top of his game, the Blue Jays reached the ALCS the next season, then won consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
Alomar spent five seasons in Toronto before finishing his career in stints with the Orioles, Indians, Mets, White Sox and Diamondbacks.
Alomar’s failure to become just the fourth second baseman — and 45th player — to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer was the result of a one blemish on a remarkable career.
Forget the 2,724 hits, 210 home runs, 1,134 RBIs, .300 career batting average, World Series titles, 12 All-Star appearances, and 10 Gold Gloves. A spray of saliva in a September 1996 game in Toronto’s SkyDome tarnished Alomar’s stellar reputation.
Called out on a third strike by umpire John Hirschbeck on a pitch that appeared to be outside, the two argued and Alomar was ejected. Before he left the plate, Alomar spit in Hirschbeck’s face and was suspended for five games. Alomar said at the time that he thought Hirschbeck was stressed because his 8-year-old son had died in 1993 of a rare brain disease.
Alomar worked to repair his image during the latter half of his career, which ended in 2004.
That the incident ended up as a sort of punishment from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which elects members to the Hall of Fame, is evident by Alomar’s vote totals: He was named on 90 percent of ballots cast on his second try, becoming just the 26th player to garner at least 90 percent in any election, and he was listed on 523 ballots, the third-highest total of all time.
Alomar and Hirschbeck have long since made peace, and Alomar, the third Puerto Rican to be elected, is focused on the task at hand.
“I feel like a kid, a kid that is dreaming of playing the game of baseball,” Alomar said. “Now, I’m going to be standing beside the greatest players that ever played this game, and I cannot believe that I’m one of them. It’s been a long journey.”