In all likelihood, Bert Blyleven is the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame. Blessed with one of the greatest curveballs the game has ever seen, Blyleven stands among the elite in several statistical categories, ranking fifth all-time in strikeouts (3,701), ninth in games started (685) and shutouts (60), and 24th in wins (287). A workhorse who hurled 4,970 innings over 22 seasons, Blyleven pitched well in his limited number of post-season appearances, going 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA while earning World Series rings with the 1979 Pirates and 1987 Twins. A native of Holland who served as the pitching coach for the Dutch team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Blyleven is currently in his 14th season as a color commentator for the Minnesota Twins.
David Laurila: How do you view the career you had in the big leagues?
Bert Blyleven: It was a lot of fun. I played for over 20 years and got to play a kid’s game. That’s the way I looked at it. There are a lot of great memories. There were a lot of challenges, both mentally and physically, through injuries and sometimes disappointing seasons. There were also World Series seasons.
DL: The statistical analysis community views your career much more highly than does the mainstream media. What are your thoughts on that?
BB: To me, baseball is a numbers game. When your career is done and your numbers are surrounded among guys who are in the Hall of Fame… well, that’s probably saying a lot. From the shutouts to the complete games to the victories to the innings pitched. Everything. To the home runs allowed to strikeouts. It’s up to the writers to decide whether I’m in the Hall of Fame or not, if that’s the direction you’re going with the question. I think I should be there, but that’s not up to me. That’s just my personal feeling.
DL: How would you describe Bert Blyleven, the pitcher?
BB: Very competitive. How do you roll one whole career into a single word? You can’t. There are so many elements that go into what you’re trying to do in a ballgame. Basically, from being 19 years old and probably trying to overthrow, and just being aggressive, to being 41 years old and still trying to get major league hitters out… guys who are a lot younger than you are. So it was the competitiveness, the opportunity, and it was my inner drive.
DL: You’re known for having had a great curveball. Was Bert Blyleven a curveball pitcher?
BB: Well, I probably got most of my strikeouts on the curveball, but I always thought that my fastball complemented my curveball. I wasn’t afraid to pitch inside and be aggressive on the mound, setting up my curveball for the strikeout, if need be. I think that when I was younger, I wanted to strike out everybody. When I got older, I realized that there were times to get strikeouts and there were times to try to get that first-pitch ground ball to short, so you can go deep into the ballgame.
DL: At which point in your career did you go from being a thrower to having a real understanding of how to pitch?
BB: I’d guess that it was probably my fourth or fifth year in the big leagues. But I was very lucky, because I came up with Jim Perry and Jim Kaat. Jim Perry won the Cy Young in 1970 with the Twins, and I got to watch him pitch. Jim Kaat, a fellow Dutchman, he and I… well, I kind of fed off of them. I constantly talked to them; I constantly watched, and then when I went from Minnesota to Texas, I learned from Gaylord Perry about how he went about his business. From there I went to Pittsburgh and you become someone that clubs rely on to go out there every fourth day, which is what it was at that time, and being consistent. That was my job. My job was to get that ball and go nine innings. Not five or six, but nine. That’s why I retired, because my shoulder surgery got me to the point where I couldn’t, mentally or physically, go nine innings. To me, it wasn’t fun any more, knowing that every five or six days I’d only be pitching five or six innings.
DL: Why did you have a great curveball?
BB: It was self-taught. I watched Sandy Koufax pitch. Of course, back then they had the 15-inch mound. I wanted, at a young age, between my junior and senior years of high school… I wanted to learn a drop, and I pretty much taught myself the rotation on the ball and how to get it to drop.
DL: Was there anything unique about the way you threw your curveball?
BB: It was a little unconventional, from most of the guys I’ve talked to. Bob Feller told me that he held his curveball the same, and he said that Sandy Koufax held his the same, as a left-hander. It’s just where the ball felt comfortable in my hand, so that I could get that snap type of feeling off the breaking ball to make it spin… to make it look like a fastball, but then break at the end.
DL: How did you grip your curveball?
BB: I held it, basically, like a four-seam fastball, but I tucked my thumb underneath, and I not only used the middle part of my thumb… I didn’t throw it off the fingernail, I threw it off the middle part of my thumb. I also put a lot of pressure on my middle finger, over above the seam. And also, my ring finger created, as it came off… it created that extra snap on it.
DL: Was your curveball one pitch, or was it multiple pitches?
BB: It was more than one pitch. It was a changeup; I could change angles on it. As I got older, I dropped down from the side. I’d make it a sweeping breaking ball rather than over the top. Sometimes I went over the top for almost a drop, but most of it was kind of like if you look at a clock, it was probably one to seven-that type of break.
DL: You threw one no-hitter. Was that the best stuff you had in a game?
BB: No, absolutely not. It just so happened that night… I had come off the disabled list, because I’d had a pulled groin… a right groin muscle. I’d had an injection in there, which was the worst shot I ever had. It was in the groin area and I was able to pitch one more time for the Rangers in late September  against the Angels. I was living in Southern California, so that was home and I was rehabbing, and I saw a horse doctor that I knew, and he injected it. It snapped again in the eighth inning, but everything just went right that night. So no, I pitched a lot of other games, ones that I would lose 1-0 or 2-1, where I had better stuff.
DL: Do you remember any particular games where you stood on the mound and felt like you owned the world?
BB: No, I never thought that way. I knew that each hitter was different and each inning was different. You could go out there one inning and have very good stuff, and then walk out the next inning and wonder where the hell it went.
DL: I believe that you gave up a home run to the first batter you faced in the big leagues.
BB: Yes I did, to Lee Maye on a 3-2 fastball, and I felt embarrassed. I was 19 years old and less than a year out of high school. I had become a big Angels fan, so I was always at Anaheim Stadium growing up. I saw Clyde Wright pitch his no-hitter. I thought that I’d like to pitch at the major league level one time, and I’d had some success in the minor leagues. I had just pitched a game in Triple-A that I won 1-0 in, I think, 10 or 11 innings, and struck out 17. They called me up, I challenged Lee Maye, and he beat me. Bill Rigney was the manager, and he came out with kind of a smile on his face. He said, “Welcome to the big leagues, son. That probably will not be the last home run that you give up.” And he was right. But the most important thing is that we won that ballgame, 2-1. It was the only run they got. I pitched seven innings and Ron Perranoski pitched the final two.
DL: After the home run, you struck out the next batter you faced, Ed Stroud.
BB: I don’t recall. A lot of times I forget what I had for breakfast.
DL: You struck out over 3,700 batters. Which was the most memorable?
BB: Probably the last one, whoever that was, because I knew my career was coming toward an end. I don’t recall the first one, and I only recall the 3,000th because they play it back once in awhile at the stadium in Minnesota. It was [Mike] Davis, of Oakland. I needed nine strikeouts that game for 3,000, and I struck out 15. So I do remember that ballgame.
DL: Why did Robin Yount have so little success against you?
BB: I don’t know. Maybe he just didn’t see the ball good. You know, it’s funny… I think Cal Ripken had excellent success against me. Sometimes… and I’ve talked to hitters, after getting traded or something, and they just see the ball good. Or somebody can’t see the ball good. It’s pure luck, probably. Hopefully I made some good pitches to him when I needed to. He could have hit a lot of balls hard right at somebody; who knows. I don’t remember all of his at-bats, but I know that he’s a Hall of Famer and was a great player.
DL: You don’t think it had much to do with relative strengths and weaknesses?
BB: No. You pitch to the stuff you have that day. Every day was different. We’re not computerized. You have to make the adjustment, and I think it’s the pitcher that makes the adjustment the quickest that will stay out there until the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. Again, the game changes so much and the stuff you have… you know what you want to do going into a ballgame, but if your team gets four runs for you in the first inning, your job is different than if it’s a nothing-nothing game in the seventh. There are so many different situations. With a runner at second base in a nothing-nothing ballgame in the late innings, you’re going to pitch differently to a guy who is paid to beat you than if it’s a number eight or nine hitter. The game dictates, really, how you go about your business.
DL: When Jack Morris‘ Hall of Fame worthiness is debated, a common theme is that Morris “pitched to the score.” Do you believe there is such a thing as pitching to the score?
BB: No, I don’t. I went out there and wanted to pitch a shutout every time, so my score was zero. That was my cup of tea. If I gave up a run… I remember Sandy Koufax saying one time that he thought no-hitter every time he walked out there. If he gave up a hit, then he thought shutout. If he gave up a run, then he thought win. Being a Koufax admirer growing up, that’s kind of what my attitude was, to go out there and put zeros on the board and hopefully your team can score you some runs and you win. If you give up a home run, or if you give up one run in the first, if you’re going to lose, lose 1-0. That’s the way you should approach it.
DL: Who were the best hitters in your era?
BB: Oh, there were a lot of great hitters. I think that anybody with a bat, at times, could hit me if I made a bad pitch. Sometimes you make a good pitch and guys hit you. Rod Carew was probably one of the best hitters I ever saw. I got to play with him and watch him night after night. Tony Oliva was another great hitter. A guy like Paul Molitor was a great hitter. You mentioned Robin Yount. I think anybody who is able to get over 3,000 hits, or even 2,000 hits, is a great hitter. Again, it’s the adjustments hitters have to make, just like pitchers have to make.
DL: How would you define the era you played in?
BB: A great era. What I was, was a starter who was expected to go nine innings. I loved pitching when I did. I would not want to pitch in today’s era. I really wouldn’t. There would not be… I don’t see the incentive. There’s no emphasis on complete games. I thought that when I pitched a shutout, it made the guy behind me better, because I went nine innings and the bullpen didn’t have to get up. That’s the way I approached it. If I could go nine innings, then I did my job. No, I wouldn’t want to pitch today.