Blyleven. Finally.

As correcting historic injustices go, this doesn’t make it anywhere near the top, but I’ll take it.

Growing up in the 1970’s, I was often told that a “curveball” didn’t really curve; it was just an optical illusion.

To that assertion, I had a two-word answer: Bert Blyleven.

No, he was not the greatest pitcher of all time, but he may have had the greatest curve ball of all time, or at least the greatest I have ever seen.  That thing curved, and don’t tell me it didn’t.  Hitters sure as hell thought it curved — that’s why Blyleven struck out 3,701 of them, 5th all time.

For years, he waited for the call from the Hall of Fame, and it never came, mainly because he retired with 287 wins, 13 short of the magic 300 that would have gotten him in on the first ballot.  (A good equivalent is Sam Rice, who retired in 1933 with a lifetime .322 average, but “only” 2,987 hits — and so had to wait nearly three decades for someone to wake up and vote him in.).

Blyleven might be the recipient of the best Chris Berman nickname ever — Bert “Be Home” Blyleven.  (Berman had a chance to beat that one in the early 90’s, when the Chargers had a running back named Natrone Means.  Imagine the possibilities: a friend of mine pushed hard for Natrone “The Ends Justify the” Means, but Berman went with “Natrone Means Business,” which was really a huge wasted opportunity.).

In any event, the injustice to Blyleven is over.  The Hall of Fame announced today that he’s in (together with Roberto Alomar, who had the good sense to get to 3,020 hits before retiring   UPDATE: 3,020 was the total for Rafael Palmiero, still under a cloud — justifiably — for steroid use.).  Congratulations to both, but especially Blyleven, who has been more patient than he should have been.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

13 thoughts on “Blyleven. Finally.”

  1. I watched him pitch many times for the Pirates and he was awesome. He would have had the magical 300 wins except he played for some lousy teams. I think we went 19-6 (or something like that) on the Cleveland Indians in a year when they they had the worst record in the league.

  2. My favorite was watching Jose Canseco (though there were many, many others) totally bail out of the batter's box as Bert's pitch headed for direct contact with his face, only to have the umpire call "Strike!" as the curveball harmlessly crossed right over home plate.

  3. Yes, congratulations to Blyleven. Better late than never. And down the road few will remember how long it took him to get elected–he'll simply be a Hall of Famer, and rightly so.

    His curveball was indeed otherworldly. How he could throw it so hard (87 mph or so, IIRC) while still getting it to break that much is beyond me.

    The debate over Blyleven's candidacy is an interesting case study of the changing understanding of baseball, and of the way the internet has changed the relationship (and blurred the line) between fans and baseball writers. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out in future with Jack Morris, who is in the opposite situation as Blyleven (supported by many old-school writers, but opposed by many statistically-minded fans).

    Bert "Be Home" Blyleven is a great nickname, but it has a lot of competition as the best Chris Berman nickname ever; see http://www.funny2.com/berman.htm. I'm partial to Eric "Sleeping With" Bienemy because it flows nicely, but it's really hard to choose.

  4. Chris "It's a Long Way to Beat" Terreri. That's easily the best Bermanism, though I'm not sure that it was Berman I heard use it.

    Congrats for Bert. He was as great as a pitcher as he currently is annoying as an announcer. I'll choose to remember the former.

  5. I agree with Jeremy. I think baseball nerds with sabremetrics and personal baseball blogs are definitely influencing the old CW that batting average and home runs are all that matter for hitters and wins and ERA are all that matter for pitchers.

    Regarding Alomar, I am not sure where the 3020 number came from, but according to baseball-reference.com, Roberto retired with 2724 hits. Still, he had great offensive numbers for a second baseman.

  6. There are three serious problems with the votes. I'm going to ignore that Barry Larkin didn't get in, because he's close enough that it's only a matter of time. There are two guys whose lack of support indicate that many of the voters still don't know how to put numbers in context: Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. With Raines, it's a combination of OBP still not getting enough respect, the fact that his stolen base success percentage is even more impressive than the total, and the inability to grasp the low offense era and stadium he played in during his peak. I don't know that these are going to get rethought in time.

    Trammell's problem is that he played right before an explosion of offense at shortstop. It seems that that explosion is going to be short lived, as Garciaparra fell to injuries, Rodriguez moved to third and Jeter is getting old. Putting Trammell's numbers next to these guys diminishes their impact. He also has the problem that there wasn't any one thing he did so well that he was considered the best at it: he wasn't a Wizard on defense, he didn't have a Streak. He was just very damned good at all aspects of the game, and the whole package was more valuable than Ozzie Smith and not far short of Ripken.

    The third part that steams me about the vote is the treatment of Jeff Bagwell. This isn't a case of people not understanding his numbers. It's that are just going to assume that sluggers were using steroids even in situations where there is no evidence to support that belief. That's Bagwell. The only evidence that he used steroids is that he's a big guy. Part of the reason I'm mad about that is the injustice to Bagwell. The other part is that it reveals that the voters haven't paid the slightest damned bit of attention to the actual steroids problem. When you look at who has actually tested positive in the major and minor league programs, it is not predominantly sluggers; it's pitchers. But the writers aren't going to decide just to avoid electing all pitchers because a bunch of them were using. Only really big dudes.

  7. Roberto Alomar should have been banned from baseball and barred him from Cooperstown as irrevocably as Pete Rose was.

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,…

    I've really not felt the same about spectator sports since seeing the players' union and the fans in my adopted hometown rally to Alomar's defense after this incident.

  8. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out in future with Jack Morris, who is in the opposite situation as Blyleven (supported by many old-school writers, but opposed by many statistically-minded fans).

    True. On the other hand, I'm a statistically-minded fan who favors Morris. I think there's a bit of truth in the claim, of unknown (to me) origin, that, "It's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Vital Statistics."

  9. I was only born in the 70's and grew up in the 80's so this "curve balls don't curve" CW is news to me. People really thought that? The physics of breaking pitches is pretty simple and anybody who's been anywhere near a golf course has seen the dramatic impacts spin can have on a ball's ballistic trajectory.

  10. Dr. Buzzsaw,

    I was only born in the 70′s and grew up in the 80′s so this “curve balls don’t curve” CW is news to me. People really thought that?

    Yes. They did. It was possibly more of a baseball urban legend than anything. Players who actually had to face curve balls never gave it much support. According to Robert Adair, in the excellent The Physics of Baseball, as early as 1870 a pitcher named Freddy Goldsmith demonstrated the reality of the curve by throwing a pitch at three rods set up in a straight line such that the ball passed to left of the first, the right odf the second, and the left of the third. Still, that did not still the optical illusion crowd, which only gave it up much later.

  11. Growing up in the 1970′s, I was often told that a “curveball” didn’t really curve; it was just an optical illusion.

    A decade later they changed their story. They said:

    Don't tax the rich and we'll see all our incomes curve upwards….

  12. Can't recall the source, but I seem to recall a pitcher from early the 20th century responding to a reporter's claim that the curveball was just an optical illusion by saying "You go stand behind a tree 60 feet 6 inches away and I'll whomp you to death with an optical illusion."

  13. It is partly an optical illusion and partly physics. When the ball leaves the central field of vision and enters the peripheral field the perceived movement of the transition is greater than the actual movement. That's why a hitter thinks a curveball falls off a table or sinker just disappears. And why it's so dangerous to throw a hanging curveball, because it never leaves the central field of vision.

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