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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : DEVIL OR ANGEL? : At 39, Bert Blyleven Continues to Throw Hitters--and Life--His Great Curve


You can just imagine the conversation between the producer and casting director:

"I need a pitcher who can give up a home run. And quick!"

A few calls later: "Uh, sir, we have Mr. Blyleven on the line."

So began the silver-screen career of Bert Blyleven, Angel pitcher, long-ball server. Barring editing-room cuts, Blyleven will make his movie debut this summer when "Filofax," a film starring Jim Belushi, is released.

It's just a bit role in which Blyleven gives up a home run to Chicago's Mark Grace that wins the World Series for Belushi's beloved Cubs. An incarcerated Belushi stages a jailbreak to attend the game and makes a fabulous catch of Grace's homer in the bleachers.

Announcer Joe Torre notices and seeks Belushi out for an interview. Belushi thinks the cops are after him. There's a chase scene through Anaheim Stadium. . . . OK, enough of the script.

Suffice it to say, Blyleven won't be on the Academy Awards invitation list, but the experience did give the 39-year-old pitcher an appreciation for actors.

"It's a lot of hard work, and you have to admire guys like Jim Belushi, because the stress is really on them to do take after take after take," Blyleven said.

So, how long did it take Blyleven to give up the home run?

"Oh, that only took a couple of pitches," he said.

Yep, they found the right man for this job. The mound has at times been Blyleven's personal gopher hill, a starting point for the major league-record 50 home runs he allowed in 1986 and the 46 he gave up in 1987. In eight other seasons during his 20-year career, Blyleven has allowed 20 or more homers.

Hollywood apparently knew of his reputation, but Blyleven didn't feel exploited or miscast, even though he yielded just 14 home runs last year.

"It was the perfect role for me," he said.

But one that barely scratches Blyleven's potential as a performer. Blyleven, who will start today's opener for the Angels against Seattle, is a multifaceted pitcher who has handled a variety of roles throughout his career.

To the managers he has played for, Blyleven has been a pillar of consistency, a pitcher they can almost always rely on for seven solid innings per start and 200 innings a season.

To his teammates, Blyleven has been a practical joker who can strike at any time, a guy who helps keep the players loose and the clubhouse atmosphere light.

To opponents, Blyleven has been the bearded villain, possessing possibly the game's best curveball, a blur of a bender that baffles even the best batters.

To fans, Blyleven has been a regular on the transaction page, a talented and well-traveled pitcher who has been the ace of several mediocre staffs but also helped two teams win world championships.

To his family, Blyleven has been a fun-loving father who acts more like a kid.

And to writers, Blyleven has been a paradox--he is often funny and quotable but sometimes crude and obnoxious.

Blyleven will never be typecast. His body of work is a wide and varied one. A retrospective:

Some thought Blyleven's horrendous 1988 season, in which he went 10-17 with a career-high 5.43 earned-run average for the Minnesota Twins, was the beginning of Blyleven's fade to retirement. If he wasn't over the hill, he was looking down the other side of it.

Angel General Manager Mike Port had a different view. He traded three minor-league prospects for Blyleven in a move that paid immediate dividends. Blyleven, recovered from the thumb injury that hampered him for much of 1988, went 17-5 with a 2.73 ERA last season, leading the American League in shutouts with five.

Nine times during the season, he won a game following an Angel loss. He stopped losing streaks of five and seven games. The Sporting News and UPI named Blyleven Comeback Player of the Year.

Blyleven, however, insists he never left.

"I guess Minnesota felt that because of all the years, I was toward the end of my career," Blyleven said. "I kept telling them I wasn't, but they wouldn't believe me. So . . . 'em!"

Blyleven sounds bitter, but says he isn't. He requested a two-year contract extension in 1988, but negotiations with Twins GM Andy MacPhail broke down and Blyleven threatened to become a free agent. MacPhail, looking for more than the draft choice he'd receive if Blyleven became a free agent, got what he could for Blyleven.

"I respect Andy MacPhail," Blyleven said. "He could have traded me to Cleveland or Atlanta."

Blyleven, who grew up a few miles from Anaheim Stadium, thrived in the Big A, going 8-1. He also allowed only 14 home runs, nine with the bases empty.

"We're not any more intelligent than many of our peers, but we felt Bert being from the area, not having the thumb problem and getting him into an outdoor park might all be part of a mix that would help him pitch better," Port said.

Throw in one more ingredient--Blyleven's desire for vindication--and the recipe was complete.

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