For the Love of the Game
Former pitcher and current broadcaster Bert Blyleven claims his stake in Twins Territory.
Depending on who you are, you might know Bert Blyleven for his tricky curveball, his time spent on one of five Major League Baseball teams, his Minnesota Twins commentary on Fox Sports Net or his fondness for the Telestrator. Having been in the baseball spotlight for nearly 40 years, Blyleven, now 56, still has thousands of fans rooting for him. He played major league ball for 22 years, 11 of those (1970-76 and 1985-88) with the Minnesota Twins. The right-hander leads the Twins in complete games (141), shutouts (29) and strikeouts (2,035). Behind only former teammate Jim Kaat, Blyleven leads the Twins in wins, games started and innings pitched. He also sits in the MLB all-time top 10 for strikeouts, starts and shutouts.
Since 1996, Blyleven has been the color analyst for the Twins alongside Dick Bremer, the Twins’ play-by-play broadcaster for nearly 25 years. Living up to his title, Blyleven keeps broadcasts “colorful,” rarely letting a game go by without a baseball joke or humorous take on current events. In 2002, Blyleven first used his Telestrator to circle a Twins fan in the stands. Soon, “Circle Me, Bert” signs of all shapes and sizes became a mainstay in the Metrodome and at other ballparks. With a flick of his wrist, Blyleven calls out a fan or two during every Twins telecast, and announces, “You are hereby circled.”
Blyleven came up for Hall of Fame eligibility in 1998, but has yet to gain the 75 percent of the vote he needs to be inducted. In August, Blyleven joins the remaining 1987 Minnesota Twins to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Minnesota’s first World Series win. He spoke with us about his career, both on and off the mound, the future of the Twins and his overall love of the game.
Where did your love for baseball come from? My love for baseball came from my dad. I was born in Holland, and when I was 2 years old we moved to Canada for four years. From Canada we went to southern California. In about third grade I started playing baseball because my friends played baseball. My dad became a great Los Angeles Dodger fan, listening to Vin Scully on the radio. The Dodgers in the ’60s were very good. Frank Howard was my dad’s favorite.
I think if you love the game of baseball, you like the action that it creates. Baseball is one of the hardest things to do. If you’re a pitcher, it’s hard to get the ball in a zone where a hitter is trying to hit a round ball with a round bat. In nearly every game you watch you can say, ‘You know what? I’ve never seen that before,’ whether it be a triple play or a great diving catch by Torii Hunter in center field. Nothing is the same in baseball. Every day there’s a new hero, and sometimes a new goat.
To me, baseball is a lot like life, because it gives you ups and downs and you have to always try to find a positive out of a negative. That’s the way I do my broadcasting. Everyone makes mistakes; we’re human. It’s about how you respond and trying to be creative in fixing your mistakes. That’s an important lesson for anybody, no matter what you do in life.
I pitched for 23 years. I had a lot of good games and a lot of bad games. It’s more how you come back from the bad game that makes you a stronger person. Nobody has to pat you on the back when you’re doing well, but a lot of people need pats on the back when things aren’t going well. That’s when you need good friends, teammates and family members around you. Then when you have good times, you remember those bad times, and you know you’re capable of getting through those times. That’s not just in baseball, but in life.
If you had to list just a few memorable moments from your career as a pitcher, what would those be? In 1979 with the Pittsburgh Pirates when we won the World Championship and in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins when we won the World Championship—because we did it as a team. Individual goals are great, but the ultimate is your team goal. It’s the end result that matters the most. Whether you’re successful or not, hopefully you’re a part of a team that is successful. In 1987, we won the first World Series ever for Minnesota, so that was cool.
How did the opportunity to be the Twins color commentator present itself? I was in Southern California and had the opportunity to do some college games. I had never really broadcasted before, but I was a pitcher who not only loved to throw that baseball, but who loved to watch the game and learn what other individuals do to be successful. Once I got into broadcasting I thought it was great, because I got to watch the game of baseball and I got to talk about it.
The Twins approached me in 1994 and asked me if I’d be interested in doing some games against the Los Angeles Angels and also the Oakland Athletics, since I was living in Southern California. The following year they offered me half the games with Tommy John, the other analyst at the time. In 1996 I started doing all the games; this is my 12th full season.
How would you describe your relationship with Dick Bremer, your broadcasting partner? I would have to say it’s good. I think we complement each other because I played the game and he talks the game. He’s the play-by-play guy, so I have to play off of him, but usually the game dictates the direction we’re going. It’s a lot of fun when we get a chance to interact with the fans. I’m a big believer, growing up listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett [the announcers for the Dodgers], that baseball is a fan’s game. It’s very important as the analyst to accentuate the positives and also get the fans involved.
How have expectations on pitchers changed since you were playing baseball? The complete game is a thing of the past. Bullpens are so important now. When I came up in 1970, we had maybe an eight- or nine-man pitching staff, where now you have an 11- to 12-man pitching staff. The lack of innings that starters are required to pitch is different now. Last year the Twins threw a 162-game schedule and they had only one complete game and that was an eight-inning loss for Johan Santana. And this is a team that won the division and went to the playoffs. Bullpens were not as important 30 years ago. Now, the goal is to give six or seven good innings and turn it over to the bullpen. And the Twins have the best bullpen in baseball. It’s also more of a numbers game than it was. We didn’t have pitch counts. You didn’t worry about your arm falling off, because you knew you were in the shape to go nine innings.
What do you think the new Twins stadium [to be completed in 2010] will do for Minnesota sports, Twins fans and the team as a whole? Hopefully with the new stadium comes a higher payroll, where you can keep the players in the Twins uniform. Torii Hunter’s contract is up at the end of the year. Here you have a player who has won six consecutive Gold Glove Awards and means so much to the Twins organization, and they may have to let him go because of the salary structure. Hopefully a new ballpark will create [that higher payroll].
I’m excited to watch outdoor baseball again. I wish there would be a retractable roof. We draw so well from the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin. I pitched in the old Met Stadium and I remember the cold weather in April and September, the rain outs and the rain delays and the fans having to sit through that. So many fans plan a vacation through the Twin Cities; with a retractable roof they’re guaranteed a game. If it’s not that way, it’s still an outdoor stadium, and while the Metrodome has been great, it was really built for football.
How will the Twins do this year? I think they’re going to do fine. The big thing is starting pitching. They pitched outstanding in spring training. Everyone is falling into place. Johan Santana is the ace. I think Ramon Ortiz is playing very well, as long as he stays healthy. Health is very important to the Twins. If someone goes down, they don’t have the finances to go out and trade for a high-priced pitcher. These guys have to stay healthy. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, you were required to pitch 250 to 300 innings as a starter. Now, if a starter can pitch 200 innings, he’s going to make $7 million to $8 million on the open market. You’d like to have four or five guys in your rotation who can pitch 200 innings and I think the Twins have that.
To me it all comes down to pitching and defense. Through 162 games, pitching and defense allows you to win the 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 games. If you don’t have good pitching and defense, you’re going to lose those types of games.
How do Minnesota Twins fans compare to the fans in other cities? They’re good baseball fans. Minnesota fans are very knowledgeable and supporting. They realize there are good days and bad days, good clubs and bad clubs. They went through the ’70s when the team wasn’t very good. All the players in ’82 kind of created the ’87 World Series team that rolled into the ’91 World Series team. Over the past six years the Twins have been very consistent. It’s a good time to be a Twins fan because you know at the end of the year there’s a good chance you’re going to go to postseason. The organization has had success with the signing of young players who develop, like Michael Cuddyer. They seem to make good trades, with say, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. Then you have the high expectations of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. It’s a good combination of players who are very talented.
Twins fans feel you should be in the Hall of Fame. What are your thoughts on that? I know my numbers speak for themselves. It’s up to the writers to decide whether and when I go in. I have five more years on the ballot. Hopefully one day I’ll be inducted, but if not, it’s out of my hands. That’s the ultimate goal as a player. I put up the numbers I was able to and when you compare them to the current day Hall of Famers, my numbers are right there. What’s rewarding to me is when I run into guys I used to play with and they say, ‘It’s a shame you’re not in and you deserve to be in.’ That’s nice, when your peers, the guys who performed as I did, know the accomplishments I made in my career are Hall of Fame credentials. That’s rewarding.
I look at every day as a gift. I learned that from my wife, Gayle. We’re on this Earth for only so long and you enjoy each day at a time, but you have to do what you love. I love the game of baseball and I have a great support group around me, especially my wife, who allows me to do that. And that’s very important. You have to be happy with what you’re doing and you need the support of your loved ones to help you accomplish what you want and to do it the right way.