Blyleven, Twins celebrate Hall call

Published 6:30 pm Wednesday, January 5, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — When Bert Blyleven arrived in Minnesota for his second stint with the Twins, he joined a team in need of his experience, endurance and sense of humor.

A few years later, Blyleven and the Twins were World Series champions.

On the day Blyleven was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in his 14th year on the ballot, his former team was happily sending congratulations the right-hander’s way and remembering his contributions to Minnesota’s first title.

“When you looked at those numbers, they match up against pretty much anybody who’s in the Hall of Fame,” ex-teammate Frank Viola said. “When the holdup is 13 wins from that magic 300, and nothing else, it’s got to be frustrating. It didn’t change him as a person, but I think it played with his head a little bit.”

Blyleven broke in with Minnesota in 1970 at age 19, but he made his mark on the next generation of Twins fans when he was brought back in 1985 to a young but promising team. Blyleven and Viola formed a tough duo at the top of the rotation in 1987, when an 85-win club scrapped its way to a championship amid the deafening din at the Metrodome.

Now, he’s a popular television analyst who has developed a regional cult following for his practice of using the teleprompter to circle fans holding up signs hoping he’ll spot them.

Circle me, Bert, reads the familiar message. Well, Blyleven now can circle July 24 on his calendar. That’s when he’ll join 12-time All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar at the induction ceremony after receiving votes on 79.7 percent of the ballots in the results released Wednesday afternoon.

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 (ninth on the career list) and 3,701 strikeouts (fifth) ultimately proved to be too great for the electorate to ignore, despite a 287-250 record and the lack of a Cy Young Award that critics pointed to.

“You can’t control, as a pitcher sometimes, wins. You can’t control losses,” Blyleven said in a conference call with reporters. “But what you can control is the innings you pitch, if you keep your club in the game.”

Viola remembered the relief he felt when Blyleven joined the Twins in 1985.

“We finally had a guy with a veteran status who had been there and done that, a guy who could take the pressure off the other pitchers like myself who weren’t familiar with being in that role,” Viola said. “Any role that you needed, the veteran, the team goofball, he was all that and more. It was always done at the right time. He always had that way about him that set him aside and apart from everybody else.”

Blyleven’s primary team over 22 major league seasons soon will boast four former players in Cooperstown, N.Y. Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Kirby Puckett are the others who made their Hall of Fame mark with the Twins.

Killebrew was elected in 1984, Carew in 1991 and Puckett in 2001. Other Hall of Famers who played briefly for Minnesota include Steve Carlton, Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor.

Viola couldn’t make it to Puckett’s ceremony. He said he’ll try to attend Blyleven’s this summer.

“To this day, he’s one of my dearest friends,” Viola said in a phone interview.

Blyleven also pitched for the Cleveland Indians, then-California Angels, Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates, retiring after the 1992 season.

Dick Bremer, Blyleven’s longtime partner in the broadcast booth, quickly recalled Blyleven’s complete-game victory on three days’ rest in the Twins’ final regular-season home game against the second-place Kansas City Royals that clinched at least a tie for the AL West title in 1987.

“To me, the World Series championship was great, but they never would’ve had that chance if they hadn’t had a Hall of Fame pitcher to hand the baseball to in their final home game,” Bremer said.

Blyleven is the Twins’ career leader in complete games, shutouts and strikeouts, and he’s second in wins and innings.

Blyleven, who was born in the Netherlands before settling in Southern California, also became a notorious clubhouse prankster who developed the art of the “hot foot,” a shoelace-lighting trick that frequently stung unsuspecting teammates. Blyleven, a Twins broadcaster since 1995, is also infamous for pulling down his pants and mooning the players during the annual team photo.

Active with charities and team functions, Blyleven has become a fixture in Twins history. Team president Dave St. Peter said several tributes are being planned at Target Field for the coming year, and a jersey retirement is being considered.

“We’ve all been on the roller coaster with him with the votes in recent years, and I think we’re really proud as an organization and looking forward to joining him in Cooperstown this summer,” St. Peter said.

Another former Twins pitcher, Jack Morris, received 53.5 percent of the vote and has three chances left.

“Hopefully Jack is going to follow me here, maybe next year, maybe the year to follow,” Blyleven said. “But my words to Jack would be, ’Don’t give up.’ His numbers are out there. He’s got very impressive numbers. He’s had a great career, and hopefully one day his day will come.”