With grace and humor, Blyleven enters Hall

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2011 - 7:08 AM

Twins pitching great and beloved broadcaster shared memories, funny and poignant, and joked, "Are we live?"

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Bert Blyleven was known for a pitch that curved and a tongue that protruded. Sunday, he found an even better use for his tongue, making the rare Hall of Fame speech that unearthed new stories and bared raw emotions.

On a steamy afternoon in Cooperstown, Blyleven entered baseball's Hall with grace and humor, speaking directly to his 85-year-old mother, trading pitching secrets with his idol, and telling rarely heard anecdotes about his adventures as a 19-year-old big-league rookie.

"Mommy, I love you," he said to Jenny Blyleven, as his mother, sitting in the front row, nodded and mouthed something back to him.

"I know a lot of you are probably waiting for me to do something silly or stupid," he said near the end of his speech. "Well, not today, but another day for sure. No hotfoots, and no mooning. ...

"You are all hereby circled."

To younger baseball fans, Blyleven is more identifiable as the Twins broadcaster who circles fans with a telestrator than as the pitcher who once screwed hitters into the ground with his curve. Blyleven, 60, cradled his Hall of Fame plaque, then took the crowd back to the formative moments in a career marked by determination and durability.

"I was like Forrest Gump," he said. "Forrest ran. I threw."

Blyleven was playing for the Evansville Triplets, on a road trip to Tulsa. It was June 1, 1970, and his Class AAA manager called him into his hotel room and handed him a telegram.

"It said, 'To Bert Blyleven, welcome to the Major Leagues, report to Mr. Rigney immediately in Boston,'" Blyleven said.

Blyleven flew to Boston to meet the Twins. He made it to the team hotel by about 1:30 a.m., and, taking the telegram literally, knocked on the hotel door of Twins manager Bill Rigney.

Rigney was surprised, then saw a chance to haze a rookie. "He got a rooming list of all the players on the team," Blyleven said. "He said, 'I want you to go to all of your teammates and tell them that you're here.'"

Blyleven knocked on all the doors, then reported back to Rigney by 3:30 a.m. The manager asked if Blyleven had met all of his teammates. Blyleven said, "I tried." Rigney asked for an explanation.

"I said, 'I tried, but nobody was in,'" Blyleven said. "I made my manager a lot of money that night. I didn't make good friends."

Blyleven made his first big-league start, and appearance, on June 5, 1970, facing the Washington Senators. He imitated the routines of veteran teammates Jim Kaat and Jim Perry, and rushed to the dugout before the game. Rigney repeatedly asked him whether he was nervous, then finally said, "Listen, Bert, I don't know how you did it in high school, and I don't know how you did it in the minors, but up here in the majors we try to wear our athletic supporters on the inside."

Blyleven fixed his uniform, and allowed a home run to Lee Maye, the first batter he faced. Rigney marched to the mound.

"I'm thinking, 'On the back of my bubblegum cards it's gonna say, Bert Blyleven, 0-1, and an ERA of infinity,'" Blyleven said. "I thought he was coming to take me out. But he left me in, and he said something to me that I'll never forget. He said, '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."

Blyleven earned the first of 287 victories that day, then called his father, a big fan of Senators slugger Frank Howard. "Finally, he asked me, 'Well, son,' in his Dutch accent, 'How did Frank Howard do against you?'" Blyleven said. "I said, 'Dad, he went 0-for-3 and I struck him out once.' ...Dad? Dad? He hung up on me.'"

Blyleven's father, Joe, died in 2004. "It was a great honor for me to have my mother here today," Blyleven said after the ceremony. "She's 85. You don't know how many plane rides she can take."

After the speech was over, Blyleven cursed a few times, just for fun. He once cursed over the air on a live Twins pregame show, so early in his speech on Sunday he looked at a bank of cameras and asked, with a grin, "Are we live?"

On stage after his speech, Blyleven traded congratulations with his fellow inductees, Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick, and notes with Sandy Koufax, whom Blyleven idolized and emulated while growing up in Southern California. "I told him he helped mentor me, and that I appreciate that," Blyleven said. "He said, 'No, you did it yourself.' I said, 'Yeah, but you helped me.' So we argued up there."

Combative throughout his career, Blyleven beamed throughout his speech.

Later, in a less formal setting, someone asked him about sticking his tongue out when he pitched.

"I got it from Babe Ruth, and Michael Jordan got it from me," Blyleven said.

He may have been joking, but Sunday afternoon, for the first time, he was joking about three Hall of Famers.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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