Hook defined Blyleven's superiority
Trademark pitch left many in awe, paving road to Cooperstown
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The good ones -- the curveballs that break so sharply and prompt a degree of dread in even seasoned batsmen, those special curves that routinely create jelly legs and misgivings in the batter's box -- earn identities that go beyond the generic terms of hook, drop and the great equalizer. A good one is called a yacker or a yellow hammer (don't ask) or an Uncle Charlie. And the pitcher who specializes in breaking balls may be called Captain Hook.
Over the decades, the extraordinary curves -- Koufax's, Ryan's, Feller's, Gooden's and Camilo Pascual's -- were afforded upper-case treatment with a touch of royalty: Lord Charles. And they came with warnings: The surgeon general has determined that curveballs can be hazardous to the health of hitters. Swing at your own risk.
Legions of big league wannabes can trace their inability to conquer the Triple-A game to the curve and its breaking ball cousins -- slider, screwball, splitter, forkball, et al. John Gibbons, the former Blue Jays manager and Mets catcher, claims that his big league career, which began in 1984, was detoured more by the curveball than by the Mets' acquisition of Gary Carter late that year.
"I could have played somewhere till 2000," Gibbons would say, "if it wasn't for the breaking ball."
Three years of Andre Dawson's Hall of Fame career, 1978-80, overlapped with the relatively brief time Bert Blyleven pitched in the National League. Dawson had seen enough by the time Blyleven jumped back. The Hawk never used any of the curveball pronouns to identify the pitch that has brought Blyleven to Cooperstown this weekend. One simple adjective covers it, he says -- nasty.
Call it what you will -- condemn it, marvel at it, mutter about it or seek to have pitches that "do that" outlawed -- the curve is responsible for Blyleven's presence in this town on this weekend. His was a Lord Charles, without question. He is a Hall of Famer because of it, just as Ruth is here because of home runs, Feller is here because of heat and Jackie is here for heroism. Blyleven's nasty, nose-to-toes pitch -- he called it a drop when he learned it -- is his key to the door of the Hall.
"You could know it was coming and not do too much with it," Dave Winfield said. Dropping one on Winfield would require considerable snap. Winfield's nose and toes are separated by more than six feet.
So he is another Hall of Fame hitter who has nothing but four-letter words and their derivations to direct at Candy Cummings, the pitcher to whom the invention of the curve routinely is attributed. "What did he have against us?" Winfield, 6-foot-6, said, speaking for most hitters.
The rhetorical answer can be found in the roster of the 1886 Hartford WhatEverTheyWeres. Cummings was 5-foot-9, 120 pounds and in need of an equalizer, great or small. The pitch that mysteriously changes directions changed the direction of his career as well. Otherwise, he would have dropped off a table.
Cummings, as much as any man, is responsible for the oft-used opening of letters to moms and dads penned by their Minor League, position-player sons: "Be home soon. They've started throwing curveballs."
The term even made its way out of sports jargon and found a place in everyday language. The boss who challenges an unprepared employee with an assignment says, "We threw him a curve. He won't know how to react."
Imagine if you came across Blyleven's curve in the few years it took him to climb to the roster of the 1970 Twins at age 19. Imagine the panic: "What if they all throw like that?" But to the unending delight of men responsible for run production, only few a few bent 'em like Blyleven.
"You could hear the snap on his curve," Ozzie Smith says. Who knew breaking balls were audible? The Hall of Fame shortstop mimicked what he had heard when he faced Blyleven -- ssssfffft -- before he shared this Elias-confirmed statistical anecdote:
"I struck out three times in a game once in my career [May 22, 1980]. And it was against him, Bert Blyleven. I had no chance."
(A strikeout aside worth a moment and a laugh: Leading off for the Cardinals in a 1985 game against the Mets, Smith, who seldom swung and missed, did so on three pitches -- two curves -- in his first-inning at-bat against Dwight Gooden. He returned to the dugout, paused at the top step, slid his bat into an imaginary sheath, as if it were a sword, and said to his teammates, "OK, let's get 'em tomorrow.")
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Truth be told, Blyleven threw two curves, one that was nose to toes, another that moved more horizontally.
"He could tell you which one was coming, and it wouldn't help," onetime Pirates teammate Bill Madlock said. "If anyone got to third base when Bert was pitching, they'd be grumbling, 'How you supposed to hit that?'"
And there's more to Blyleven's curve. Consider this: some of the pitchers who threw a comparable curve -- Koufax, Ryan, Gooden, Feller -- also threw serious fastballs. Blyleven, Pascual and Adam Wainwright, the leading "Charlie" of today's game, didn't deal in such velocity. Their curves weren't so well reinforced. And they still dominated. (See 60 shutouts for Blyleven.)
Blyleven learned his curves from two other Hall of Famers -- Koufax, who threw one that was more deadly, and Vin Scully, whose radio descriptions of Koufax's killer curve caught the fancy of a Southern California kid from Holland whose father fixed bumpers, endorsed baseball and introduced his son to the Dutch work ethic.
The late Father Blyleven will be thanked often on Sunday afternoon when Rik Aalbert Blyleven -- properly pronounced Bly-lay-ven -- delivers his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. The Hall-designate said he and his 85-year-old mother, Jenny, here from California, spoke of -- and perhaps with -- dad on Friday night when they occupied two rocking chairs on the veranda of the hotel headquarters here. But Friday night was for family. The veranda on the lake seduces everyone. Tranquility base-ball.
Chances are, they didn't discuss the curve. But if Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven is the topic, curveballs will be discussed. "Oh, yeah; I know he had a good one," Whitey Ford said on Friday in the hotel lobby after Blyleven had passed by. "I liked his curve. Big break ... and it was legal."
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.