By Rachel Kytonen, Isanti County News—
With hard work, dedication, sacrifice and love for the game, he made you feel anything is possible.
Hall of Famer and former Minnesota Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven visited with fans, shared stories and signed autographs on Tuesday evening, May 1 at Cambridge-Isanti High School. East Central Regional Library and C-I Community Education sponsored the free event thanks to Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
(To view or purchase photos of Bert’s visit to Cambridge, click here.)
Aside from his playing days, Blyleven is known for his color commentary alongside play-by-play man Dick Bremer during Twins game broadcasts. He is also responsible for the “Circle Me Bert” phenomenon that highlights fans in the crowd and enables Bert and his wife, Gayle, to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease.
His baseball career included time with the Texas Rangers, California Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians. He has two World Series rings—one with the Pirates in 1979 and another as a Twin in 1987. Retiring with the Angels in the early ‘90s, Blyleven was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2011.
Born Rik Aalbert Blijleven in Zeist, Netherlands in 1951, Bert grew up in Garden Grove in northern Orange County, Calif.
“When my family and I came to the United States in 1957, my father introduced me to the game of baseball through the radio and Vin Scully,” explained Blyleven to an audience of a few hundred inside the Richard G. Hardy Performing Arts Center. “When I was in third grade, some of my friends were playing Little League and asked me if I wanted to join. I started off as a catcher and then my manager asked me if I wanted to pitch. I was tall and skinny and fell in love with the baseball in my hand.”
Blyleven was drafted by the Minnesota Twins right after high school in 1969. He entered the major leagues the following year at the age of 19 and was named American League Rookie of the Year by Sporting News.
He remembered the time when he was called up to the majors while playing Triple A ball.
“It was a rainy night in Tulsa, Okla., and our game got rained out, so a player and I caught a movie,” said Blyleven. “When we got back to the hotel I received word the manager wanted to see me. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I didn’t know what he wanted to see me for. When I got there he showed me a telegram that the Minnesota Twins were playing in Boston, and they needed a pitcher.”
Taking the telegram’s instructions quite literally, he boarded a plane, arrived in Boston around 2 a.m. and immediately knocked on manager Bill Rigney’s hotel room. Rigney—hardly pleased by the unexpected wake-up call—then told the young pitcher to introduce himself to the other players (also in the middle of the night).
“Well, I proceeded to do that and got back to Mr. Rigney’s door at 3 a.m. He asked, ‘Did you meet the other players?’ I told him I tried to meet as many as I could, but most of them weren’t in their rooms. Well, Mr. Rigney made a little money that night,” joked Blyleven without having to say the players were fined for violating curfew.
Bert said he wasn’t exactly liked by his new teammates the next day.
Making the majors
Blyleven’s first major league game was June 5, 1970 against the Washington Senators.
“I watched what the other pitchers did to prepare for a game and did the same exact thing,” Blyleven noted. “I was nervous, my legs were shaking and the first batter I faced was Lee May. Somehow I got the count to 3-2. My sixth pitch at the major league level went for a home run right out of the ball park. After that my manager came out and I thought he was going to pull me. He said, ‘Son, that’s not the only home run you will give up. And he was right, I gave up 429 after that.”
Learning the curve
Bert Blyleven learned what turned out to be his signature pitch during his junior and senior years in high school. He also recalls being fascinated by Vin Scully’s description of Sandy Koufax’s devastating curve ball.
However, his father didn’t want him throwing the bender until he was age 14 or 15 because of the stress it puts on the elbow. It was family tradition, too, that the Dutch don’t work (or pitch) on Sundays, so Bert and his father visited known televangelist Dr. Robert Schuller about his thoughts.
“My dad asked him, ‘Would it be a sin to work (pitch) on Sundays?’” Schuller replied, “I think it would be a sin for him to pitch everyday because I’ve seen him pitch,” smiled Bert.
Blyleven indeed waited to start throwing his curve ball, and it was worth the wait as it and his fastball got him drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Twins in 1969. Just as exciting: he was able to get his own “bubble gum card.”
1987 World Series season
Blyleven said he enjoyed all the teams he played for, but especially his Twins teammates from the 1987 World Series Championship.
“No one expected the Minnesota Twins to do what we did that year,” Blyleven said. “I just love the area so much and the people in Minnesota. When we beat Detroit in five games to advance to the World Series, we were on the plane ride back and they told us we would head to the Metrodome so season-ticket holders could offer their congratulations and wish us well in the World Series.
“Well as we headed to the Dome, we saw signs hanging from all over the highway overpasses congratulating us. We got to the Dome around 11:30 p.m. and there were over 55,000 people waiting for us. I still get goose bumps thinking about that night. We just didn’t have nine players on the field that year, we had 10—thanks to the wonderful fans all across Minnesota.”
Advice for youngsters
During Blyleven’s presentation, he told the youngsters in the audience that becoming a professional baseball player is not easy.
“If you have the dream to be a baseball player, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication,” Blyleven explained. “I always had a hard work ethic that came from my parents. My mom told me they came over from Holland with $52 in their pocket. My inner drive really came from them …When I would be pitching games, I was always the first one at the ballpark. I wanted to get there to clear my head, start focusing on the game, and see the line up.”
Blyleven shared a few thoughts on his overall view of the game by giving each letter from the word ‘baseball’ a special meaning: B: Believe. A: Attitude. S: Sacrifice. E: Enthusiasm. B: Behavior. A: Action. L: Leader. L: Love.
“I got to play a kids’ game for 23 years, wear a uniform and make a complete fool of myself sometimes,” Blyleven said. “And now with broadcasting, I have the opportunity to stay a part of the game I love. I love broadcasting games and love watching the Minnesota Twins win.”
Blyleven, who lives in Fort Meyers, Fla. with his wife, explained he is only broadcasting 100 games this season, compared to 150 as in past seasons.
“The hardest part about being a professional athlete was being away from family,” he said. “But we did have six months off during the year, and the reward for all the sacrifice you made is spending time with your family later on in your life.”
Bert Blyleven fun facts
Teams he played on:
• Minnesota Twins (1970–1976)
• Texas Rangers (1976–1977)
• Pittsburgh Pirates (1978–1980)
• Cleveland Indians (1981–1985)
• Minnesota Twins (1985–1988)
• California Angels (1989–1992)
Favorite player on the current MN Twins roster: Denard Span
Batter he feared the most: Anyone with a bat
Favorite teams to play for? 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates & 1987 MN Twins
Favorite stadium locations to play in: Anaheim, Kansas City, Minneapolis (Metrodome)
One of his favorite moments: In 1987 when more than 55,000 Twins fans greeted the team at the Metrodome around 11:30 p.m. after defeating Detroit in Game 5 of the ALCS to advance to the World Series.