COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – It didn't take long for Bert Blyleven to feel at home in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. As soon as he sat down in the Grandstand Theater, the notorious prankster was in high gear.
"I gave up a home run over there," Blyleven said Tuesday as he stared at a wall of the theater, a replica of Chicago's old Comiskey Park. "The first time I pitched there I had a shutout going and Ed Herrmann hit a home run and the scoreboard went off. It scared the heck out of me. I liked it so much I gave up home runs (there) over the years just to make it go off."
This was the third trip to Cooperstown for the former right-hander, who won World Series titles with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1979) Minnesota Twins (1987), and it was like none other. It was a preparatory stroll through history ahead of his long-awaited induction in July. Blyleven, who will go in with Pat Gillick and Roberto Alomar, was elected on his 14th try in January and still hasn't come down from Cloud Nine.
"There's still disbelief," Blyleven, 60, said as he sat near where his plaque will hang in the Hall of Fame gallery. "I think once I come here (in July) and then all of a sudden I check into the Otesaga Hotel ... and Hall of Famers are already there, it'll be like, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It'll be exciting. I'm going to be in awe. I'm just glad I'm on this side of the grass."
Blyleven, the first player from Holland to be voted in, finally crossed the 75-percent threshold, receiving votes on 79.7 percent of the ballots. It was a long climb after receiving only 14.1 percent of the vote in 1999, his second year of eligibility. But his 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts ultimately proved to be too great to ignore, despite a 287-250 record and a lack of a Cy Young Award that critics pointed to.
Blyleven, who signed with Minnesota in 1969, ranks first on the Twins' career list in complete games (141), shutouts (29) and strikeouts (2,035), and is second in wins (149) and innings pitched (2,566 2-3). He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970 for Minnesota, and also played for Pittsburgh, Cleveland, California, and Texas in his 22 seasons.
The Twins will retire his No. 28 jersey when they hold Bert Blyleven Day a week before his induction. He'll be the sixth Twin with his number retired, joining Harmon Killebrew (No. 3), Rod Carew (No. 29), Tony Oliva (No. 6), Kent Hrbek (No. 14) and Kirby Puckett (No. 34).
True to his fun-loving character, Blyleven had an explanation for his long wait. Though the major league record book shows he never made it to 5,000 innings pitched, failed to reach the magical 300-win total and fell short of 4,000 strikeouts, he blamed the writers for an obvious oversight.
"They never (counted) Little League, high school, Pony League, (and American) Legion ball," he said. "They should have added all that together."
The self-effacing Blyleven, with his wife Gayle at his side, was full of questions at every turn.
"When did players first get paid?" he asked curator Eric Strohl as they looked at an exhibit with a baseball from a game in 1863 that ended with a score of 53-13. "That sounds like some of the games I pitched."
Moments later, Blyleven took one look at a photo of Eddie Gaedel and just shook his head. The 3-foot-7, 65-pound Gaedel, the only midget to bat in major league history, was part of a stunt by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck in 1951 and walked on four pitches from Detroit's Bob Cain.
"He should have hit him," Blyleven said. "He could have saved three pitches."
Blyleven also marveled at the exploits of Hall of Fame pitchers Cy Young, Christie Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Young won 511 games and Johnson had 110 shutouts, both major league records that will never be surpassed.
"They had to pitch every other day," Blyleven said. "I always say I'd like to go back in a time capsule and see how the game was played back when Cy Young pitched, or Walter Johnson. Here you get a sense of that."
As amazing as Young and Johnson were, Blyleven also had a tendency to awe fans. He allowed a major league record 50 home runs in 1986 and 46 the next season — and he had an explanation for that, too.
"I looked at those two years, the cows were in better shape than they were ever before," he said. "The hide was thicker. I think the farmers were actually walking the cattle. That's why I gave up so many home runs. The hide was thicker."
Up in the library, Blyleven was shown pictures from his career and then waxed nostalgic as he peered at a scorecard from 1869.
"That's 5:45 p.m. It's almost dark," he said, noting the time the game ended. "I should have pitched then. I always pitched better at night with the lights out."
The tour ended with Blyleven walking through the gallery, stopping to gaze at the plaques of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Willie Stargell, Rod Carew, and tapping the top of former teammate Kirby Puckett's. Then he sat down not far from where his plaque will hang, a satisfied smile on his face.
"There's not a door near my plaque. My face is usually near a door so everybody exits, and it's not near a bathroom," he deadpanned one last time. "No, I'm looking forward to it. I'm very honored. It really hasn't hit home and it probably won't hit home for a while, probably maybe induction weekend when I mess up my speech and I realize I'm one of them."