WHAT HAPPENS when you take a baseball player famous for mooning the camera in team photos and put him in the broadcast booth? With Bert Blyleven at the mic, you can never be sure. But as the Twins’ colorful commentator, he has found plenty of ways to entertain fans and unnerve producers. ¶ During 22 seasons as a major leaguer—half of those with the Twins—Blyleven was legendary for his practical jokes: crawling under the Kingdome bleachers in Seattle to give former teammate Phil Roof a hotfoot in the Mariners’ bullpen, or mashing a plateful of shaving cream in Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda’s face during a television interview. ¶ But it was his curve ball—a hard pitch with a wicked break—that left opponents shaking their heads in astonishment. Some fans wonder why Blyleven, a pitcher who struck out more batters than Sandy Koufax with 3,701 strikeouts (fifth best of all-time), has yet to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He came closest last year, with 53 percent of the votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, but remained shy of the 75 percent required for the honor. ¶ Blyleven, at 56, brings all of his baseball acumen, balanced by his humor, onto the air—a breath of levity in an often-serious sport. During an August telecast last year, when play-by-play partner Dick Bremer introduced Cleveland pinch hitter Shin-Soo Choo, Blyleven quickly responded, “Bless you.” Sometimes his color commentary shades off-color: “What do you do to an elephant with three balls on him?” he once asked. “Walk him and pitch to the giraffe.”
Five years ago, during a slow game in Kansas City, Blyleven found a use for his telestrator pen that revolutionized fan participation. He circled a Twins fan in the crowd. He did it again in Detroit, and by the time the Twins returned home, “Circle me, Bert” signs flashed throughout the Metrodome. “My favorites are the posters with the kid or granny sticking their head through a hole in the center,” he says.
His spontaneity makes producers squirm, however—never more so than his now-infamous double F-bomb drop during the September 3, 2006, pre-game show. Blyleven thought the show was being taped and that his remarks would later be edited. “When I heard them screaming in my ear we were live,” he says, “I felt about two inches high.” The slip-up caused a media furor and the video clip made the rounds on the Internet until Major League Baseball yanked it off Youtube.com, but sympathetic fans stood by the popular broadcaster. A state senator even offered to intercede with Twins president Dave St. Peter on Blyleven’s behalf. “A lot of people stepped forward and were friendly,” Blyleven says. “I didn’t get one negative call.”
The Twins ultimately decided Blyleven’s popularity outweighed his liabilities, signing him in January to a three-year contract with two one-year renewal options. But while the Minnesotans back him, the Hall of Fame voters must recognize Blyleven’s skills as a player by 2012, or his name will fall off the ballot. Only a special election by the Veterans’ Committee could get him voted in then.
“If it happens, great. If not, great,” he says. “I’ve still got great memories of my career.” And at least one funny photo to remember the true spirit of the game.
John Rosengren is a Minneapolis-based writer.