Two roads converge in Cooperstown
Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar follow different paths to join Pat Gillick in Class of 2011
A week after his election to the Hall of Fame, Bert Blyleven was on the phone with his mother, Jenny, when she asked, "Son, are they still keeping you or putting you into that Hall of Fame thing?" Replied Blyleven, "Yeah, Mom. They haven't taken me out yet."
You can't blame Mrs. Blyleven for wondering. Her son won 287 games, struck out 3,701 batters (third-most all time when he retired), pitched 60 shutouts (nearly as many as Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez combined) and 242 complete games, and threw the curveball against which all others are compared. But it still took baseball writers 14 years to send him to Cooperstown. As he joked earlier this year, "I think they finally counted my Little League wins.''
Roberto Alomar didn't have to wait nearly that long, but he still is going in later than he should. Alomar played in 12 consecutive All-Star Games, won 10 Gold Gloves, batted .300 nine times, scored 1,508 runs, stole 474 bases and won two World Series. Even so, he finished eight votes shy of election his first year on the ballot in 2010, then gained 126 votes last year for election.
In Blyleven's case, his vote evolution was due to changing awareness and appreciation of statistics beyond wins and losses. It's more difficult to account for Alomar not earning election on the first ballot as one of the greatest second basemen in history.
"The last 25 years I haven't seen anybody that could do anything at second base like Robbie Alomar did,'' said former Toronto general manager Pat Gillick, who also is being inducted into the Hall as an executive this weekend. "There are plays, phenomenal plays, instinctive plays, that he made that I haven't seen anybody in 25 years make.''
Alomar says he doesn't know why he didn't get enough votes his first year yet so many his second. It is possible, however, that a few bitter writers might have held back their votes due to the notorious incident in 1996 when Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck. If so, it was incredibly petty reasoning -- remember, Babe Ruth once punched an umpire -- especially given that Alomar and Hirschbeck more than patched up their differences.
"Me and John have become great friends,'' Alomar said. "I want people to know that the year that I didn't make it, one of the first phone calls that I got was from him apologizing. He said that he felt sorry for me not making it because maybe that was one of the reasons why I didn't make it in the first round. And I told him, 'No, it's not your fault. It was my fault. And, you know, we just have to move on.'
"We have done a lot of great things for the Hirschbeck Foundation. I became real friends with him and his family. John embraced me the same way I embraced him. And when I got in this year, he was one of the happiest men alive. He phoned me and left me a message on my phone. I still have the message. And it was a great message. He said, 'We both move on.' And hopefully people can move on and let this episode go.''
Moving on is what life is frequently about. Blyleven was born in Zeist, Holland, to Dutch parents who emigrated in 1953 and eventually settled near Anaheim. He is the first player from the Netherlands to be elected to Cooperstown.
"I am very proud to be the first Dutch-born player to go into the Hall of Fame,'' Blyleven said. "I take that with a lot of pride. Because I represent my parents, who were born and raised there. They went through World War II. They wanted a better life. They came to the United States. They lived the American Dream of being here.''
Blyleven says his father, Joe, straightened car bumpers when he came to America, and also proudly supported his son in his new country's national pastime, even building a mound for Bert to pitch from in the backyard.
"He was a guy that was at every game that I can remember, whether it be Little League or high school baseball,'' Blyleven said. "He was always there. He was the one that would yell at the umpire if we lost because, of course, it was the umpire's fault that we lost. So he would chase umpires to the car. I remember a lot of times he would have to leave the school grounds or we would have to forfeit the game because the umpires had had enough of him.''
Alomar, meanwhile, is the third player from Puerto Rico to reach the Hall of Fame. He said he will begin his induction speech in Spanish. "It is an honor to be representing my country and my people,'' he said. "I came from a small town in Salinas, Puerto Rico, and it took me a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter.''
His induction is another honor for the Alomar family. Roberto's father, Sandy, played in the majors and his brother, Sandy Jr., was an All-Star and a teammate. "My brother has always been my best friend and he's been a mentor to me since Little League all the way to the big leagues," Roberto said. "My hero is my dad. My dad is the guy that I always followed since I was a young kid. He taught me a lot about this game.''
Gillick originally tried to sign Alomar at age 16, but the player had already committed to the Padres. Showing why he would one day go into the Hall of Fame as a general manager, Gillick finally got Alomar and Joe Carter in a blockbuster trade before the 1991 season. Alomar rewarded him by helping Carter lead the Jays to consecutive World Series titles in 1992-93. Sometimes you just have to wait awhile.
"Going into the Hall of Fame is a higher honor than winning a World Series, believe it or not,'' Blyleven said. "It is the ultimate. You are in a fraternity that is so small. All of a sudden it goes from Bert Blyleven, major league pitcher to Bert Blyleven, Hall of Fame major league pitcher.''
And don't worry, Mom. They're not taking it away from him. He and Alomar will be there forever as the Class of 2011, proof that whether you were born into a baseball family or a Dutch family that barely heard of the game, whether your father played in the majors or just chased umpires into high school parking lots, you can wind up in Cooperstown if you have the talent and the work ethic. Even if it takes the writers a while to realize that.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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