Blyleven caps glorious day in Cooperstown
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The architect had said his piece, and the second baseman had completed his speech, well delivered even in what, for him, was a foreign tongue. After Pat Gillick made clear his affection for the game, Robbie Alomar made his mother cry, his father proud and translation unnecessary. It was left up to the starting pitcher to close. Whoever created the sequence of speakers for Induction Sunday had determined that Bert Blyleven would have guaranteed last licks.
How appropriate. Even before the Dutchman began speaking a career's worth of thank yous, there was talk of his tongue. Honest. Not the arm that won 287 games, nor the snapping wrist that produced 60 shutouts -- one for each year of his life thus far -- and 3,701 strikeouts, nor the heart that was largely responsible for 242 complete games. It was tongue that was the topic.
Blyleven's was mentioned prominently during the brief video presentation that preceded his introduction. Another Dutchman, Jim Kaat, regaled the overheated audience with an anecdote from 1970, Kaat's 10th year with the Twins and Byleven's first. And it was all about the guy's tongue. Blyleven stuck it out as he delivered his lethal curveball.
Now, anyone who has seen "The Babe Ruth Story" (William Bendix as the Babe, released in 1948) is familiar with the cause-and-effect relationship between a protruding tongue and telegraphing pitches. Kaat was urged to advise the plebe to keep his mouth shut with the telling tongue inside, else opposing batsmen would have a pretty good notion of what a two-pitch rookie was going to throw.
Kaat considered the patient and declined. His reason: "If they're watching his tongue, they're never going to hit that curve. And if they're not, they're not gonna hit it anyway."
All these years and curveballs later, Blyleven used the very same tongue to express his appreciation for what occurred Sunday. For the first time in 12 years, the Hall inducted a starting pitcher -- Nolan Ryan, Class of 1999 was the previous one -- and for the first time ever, it opened its doors to the Dutch. The orange tie Blyleven wore was his recognition of his native country and, some ways, to his parents.
With his bright tie, white shirt and dark suit, Blyleven cut quite a figure Sunday. His more-salt-than-pepper Van Dyke and his flat top added to his distinctive appearance on a day of great distinction for him. He seemed to enjoy every phase of the weekend as much as any inductee and more than most.
There were solemn moments. The absence of his father and late teammate Harmon Killebrew diluted his joy. But the presence of his 85-year-old mother, his family and his friends tickled him. And to become part of a group that included the man whose curveball he copied, a man seated behind him on the dais, tugged at Blyleven's emotions.
He referred to the grip and spin and using the seams and added, "So thank you, Sandy Koufax."
His emotion and his now-famous tongue were in check most of the afternoon. His mother's stoic expression, broken several times by soft smiles, steeled him. After days of threatening to say a few words the network censor would find objectionable, there was no slip of the tongue until an intentional one afterwards when the cameras were gone and when he was asked, "Do you stick out your tongue when you putt?"
His response was about bathroom activity, an indication of why the phrasing on his plaque begins with "Determined, durable and fun-loving Dutchman."
Blyleven acknowledged having seen William Bendix's movie. "I learned it from Ruth and gave it to Michael Jordan," he said and recalled his tongue being sore after some games.
But this afternoon was prank-free despite his presence. "I know a lot of you are probably waiting for me to do something silly or stupid," he said. "Well, not today, but another day for sure. No hot foots and no mooning."
The Hall of Fame is serious business for a man who waited 14 years for election -- and for those who didn't and for those already inducted. Seated behind Blyleven were 47 -- no, 49 with Gillick and Alomar -- from baseball's elite. Ten were starting pitchers, contemporaries and those who had set the bar -- Marichal, Whitey, Seaver, Palmer, Sutton, Fergie, Gaylord, Knucksie and Sandy. Next year and all other years, past and future, Blyleven will be among them in some way.
"Today, I take a lot of pride in being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame," he said. "To be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame is the highest honor an athlete can get." And as he closed, he gave a nod to friend Jay Black, the voice in Jay and the Americans, who had told him, "This is your 'Magic Moment.'" Imagine, a pitcher finding satisfaction in a hit.
Blyleven did create some light moments during his speech:
His scholastic career: "My dad was not liked by too many umpires because if we lost, of course it was the umpire's fault. Many times he'd be ordered off the field and off the school grounds. My mother actually sometimes would actually sit on the opposing team's side because she was embarrassed of our dad."
The aftermath of surrendering a home run to his first big league batter, Lee May: "I see my manager Bill Rigney coming out, and I'm thinking, 'On the back of my bubblegum card, it's going to say Bert Blyleven 0-1, an ERA of infinity.' I thought he was going to come take me out, but he left me in and he said something I'll never forget: 'You know what, son, that's not the last home run you'll give up.'
"The man was a genius. Over 22 years, I gave up only 429 more."
His call home after his first game, a victory against the Senators: "My dad was a huge Frank Howard fan. We talked about the game a little bit and finally he asked me, 'Well, son,' in his Dutch accent, 'how did Frank Howard do against you?' I said, 'Dad, 0-for-3, and I struck him out once.'
"'Dad? ... Dad?' He hung up on me. He wanted Frank Howard to take me deep."
But mostly, Blyleven was sincere and serious. He wished cancer-stricken Gary Carter well. He politicked for Kaat, Tony Oliva and Tommy John to be inducted. He mourned those who couldn't have attended.
And then he was off. Back to the hotel to hydrate, recover from the heat and a weekend of stress and to prepare for the Sunday night dinner with the 49 new colleagues. After being humbled and honored in the afternoon, Blyleven was likely to be humiliated at night. "That's when you feel like you're in," Tom Seaver had explained Saturday. Rings are presented, membership is official, laughter is mandated. And the HOF rookies are abused.
"I know. I'm prepared," Blyleven said. He should have held that tongue.
Said Seaver: "No, he's not."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.