Trying to hit Bert Blyleven's curveball, remembers former Texas Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg, was akin to climbing on top of a beach ball in a swimming pool.
"You ever try to do that?" asked Sundberg, now a senior executive vice president with the Rangers. "Get on top of a beach ball in the pool and hold it down? "You think you've got it, and then -- 'Whoosh!' -- it gets away from you again."
Baseball old-timers like to talk about former players who had special talents. They remember the eerie sound that Nolan Ryan's fastball made on those memorable days -- and there were many of them -- when he was at his very best and batters were absolutely helpless against him.
They reminisce about the fluid grace of an Ozzie Smith at shortstop, or the combination of sheer power and speed of a Mickey Mantle. They shake their heads remembering the cruelty of Randy Johnson's slider.
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But when the talk turns to curveballs, the one pitch throughout the history of the game that singlehandedly ended so many budding players' careers, Blyleven's name is almost always at the top of the list.
"His curveball," Sundberg said, "was simply devastating. It seemed like we were always playing the Twins on Opening Day, and that meant facing Blyleven. It was a very happy day for me [in 1976] when the Rangers traded for him and I knew I wouldn't have to face him on Opening Day again, at least not the next year."
Blyleven rode that devastating curveball through 22 big league seasons and today, it will finally carry him through the hallowed doors of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Not bad for a guy who learned to throw a curveball by listening to Dodgers announcer Vic Scully describe Sandy Koufax's curve on the radio.
"As a kid I always kept score when Koufax and [Don] Drysdale pitched growing up in Southern California," Blyleven said. "I loved doing that and we didn't get a lot of games on TV, so I camped myself in front of the radio.
"Scully and Jerry Doggett would describe the drop on Koufax's curveball. I remembered an interview I heard Koufax do about that, and he said if he had a son, he wouldn't allow him to throw a curveball until he was 13 or 14. My dad heard that, too, and he wouldn't let me throw one until 13 or 14."
It wasn't as if Blyleven didn't have a good fastball; he did. He could hum it up there in the mid-90s. But it was his command of the curveball that set him apart.
"I concentrated on locating my fastball and I was always proud of that, but my curveball was my out pitch because it was so sharp," Blyleven said. " I knew I had to get on top of the ball to get the downward movement.
"The way I threw it was kind of unique. I threw it like a four-seam fastball, with your two big fingers, your pointer and middle finger, over the seams of the ball. My thumb was straight on the fastball, but on the curveball, I would lower my thumb underneath and get it on a seam and my ring finger on the seam around the bottom end of the baseball. So I created that tumbling effect."
'Under the tag'
Despite ranking fifth all-time with 3,701 strikeouts and ninth with an amazing 60 shutouts in his career, Blyleven was never a shoo-in for the Hall. Players become eligible five years after their careers have ended, and they remain on the ballot for no more than 15 years, provided they continue to get at least 5 percent of the vote each year. Needing 75 percent of the vote from eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Blyleven was elected in his 14th year on the ballot. He climbed steadily from just over 17 percent of the vote his first year on the ballot to 79.7 in his 14th.
"Slid in just under the tag, I guess," said Blyleven, whose sense of humor has always held him in good stead, especially now that he's the color analyst for the Minnesota Twins' TV broadcasts. "I never gave up hope, though. Seeing what happened a year earlier, when I just missed by five ballots, you hope your time has come."
Finishing his career with an overall record of 287-250, Blyleven fell just 13 wins short of that magical 300-wins figure that virtually guarantees election to Cooperstown. Critics point out that he had just one 20-win season (20-17) in 1973, never finished higher than third in Cy Young Award voting and made just two All-Star teams.
Supporters, on the other hand, note that Blyleven pitched on two world championship teams (Pittsburgh, 1979; Minnesota, 1987), won 15 or more games nine times in his career, 10 times posted a sub-3.00 ERA and topped 200 strikeouts in eight seasons. Seventeen times Blyleven won 10 games or more in a season. He also racked up 242 complete games, 20 more than Ryan.
"When I saw him the first year I was in the American League, I told Tom Seaver, 'There's a young kid over here who has as good a curveball as you'll see in baseball,'" recalled Ryan. "He threw hard, but the thing that impressed me was his curveball, his confidence to throw it and how he was willing to use it any time in the count.
"He just had a feel for it. He had a good angle on it. I thought he had the best curveball in the American League."
That's coming from a guy who had a knee-buckler Sundberg ranks second only to Blyleven's.
"Nolan had the best fastball and a great curveball," Sundberg said, "but nobody had a better curveball than Blyleven. In terms of command and the break of it, it was dominating. It was special because of the length, speed and sharpness. He threw it hard, it broke hard and it broke big."
The curveball might never have been sharper than it was on Sept. 22, 1977, when Blyleven, pitching for the Rangers in Anaheim, no-hit the California Angels in a 6-0 victory.
By the time the ninth inning arrived, Angels hitters were screaming at Blyleven to throw the ball straight.
"For probably the last three innings of his no-hitter, we threw [the curveball] predominantly almost every time," said Sundberg, who was behind the plate for that gem. "We knew they couldn't get it in the air. They were always on top of it. If they were going to get a hit, it was going to have to be on the ground."
What few knew at the time was that Blyleven gritted out the last few innings with a strained groin. It was the last game he would ever pitch for the Rangers. Rangers owner Brad Corbett would include Blyleven in a four-team, 11-player deal at the winter meetings the following December, a trade that would bring Al Oliver to Texas. Blyleven still holds the distinction of being the only pitcher ever traded after pitching a no-hitter in his last game for his team.
Two years later, Blyleven was 12-5 in helping Pittsburgh reach the World Series, then was excellent in Games 2 and 5, winning the latter 7-1 in relief, as the Pirates beat the Orioles in seven games.
Winning the World Series in '79 and again back with the Twins eight years later are Blyleven's two favorite memories of his more than two decades in baseball.
A 19-year-old Blyleven arrived in the big leagues in 1970 in an era when pitching dominated the sport. Memories of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford at their best were still fresh. Names like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Don Sutton were just coming into prominence.
Blyleven had immigrated to Canada with his family from Zeist, Netherlands, when he was just 2 years old, then moved to Southern California four years later. Living in Paramount, Calif., baseball was something strange and new to the Blyleven family, but Bert's father, Joe, fell in love with the Dodgers, and especially with huge power-hitting outfielder Frank Howard.
"My dad was a big guy, too, and made a living as a bumper straightener," Blyleven said. "He was fascinated with Howard's size and strength. One time we went to a game together and sat up in the nosebleed section. We watched Koufax beat [Juan] Marichal 1-0."
Blyleven had begun playing baseball at 10, and what he saw that night made a lasting impression.
"The drive that both of them had off that pitching rubber was unbelievable," Blyleven said. "Marichal had that high leg kick and Koufax had that big curveball; you could almost hear it break."
The kid who had started as a catcher on the Jackson Cleaners team had pitching in his blood.
"Our manager noticed that I was throwing the ball back harder than the pitcher was throwing it to me," Blyleven said.
And a pitcher was born.
Saying 'thank you'
Blyleven loves the game and is grateful he's had a chance to stay around it as a TV announcer for his first team, the Twins. He'll express that today at Cooperstown.
"It's an opportunity to say thank you to a lot of people who mentored me in my life," Blyleven said. "My dad, my brothers and sisters, Bill Rigney, my managers and coaches, the scout who signed me, my high school coach.
"I'll probably tell some stories along the way. My 85-year-old mother will be there, and I want it to be a special weekend for her."
Blyleven knows that his dad, who died of Parkinson's disease in 2004, will be watching, too.
"It'll probably be emotional when I talk about my dad," he said. "I'll try to describe Joe Blyleven the best I can to people who didn't know him. Dad was 6-3, maybe 240, a big strong Dutchman, big strong hands. The knots on my head attest to that.
"He was a disciplinarian. He worked hard and expected us to work hard. We never sat around."
Blyleven has also extended a special invitation to Nolan and Ruth Ryan, in hopes that they can attend his special day.
"I admired [Ryan] and learned a lot from watching him when he pitched for the Angels," Blyleven said.
Who knows, perhaps Ryan learned a little something from Blyleven, too.
"Their curveballs were awfully similar," Sundberg said suspiciously. "I couldn't hit either one of them."
It was, in fact, kind of like trying to get on top of a beach ball in a swimming pool.
Just not nearly as much fun.