MIAMI – The podiatric arsonist has retired.
Bert Blyleven has hung his lighter up. The allure of setting shoelaces on fire has abated over the years, and he is instead these days adopting a more mundane concept in trying to keep people warm: a jacket.
When Juan Carlos Sulbaran, a 19-year-old pitcher representing the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, ascended the dugout steps sleeveless during a Florida workout earlier this month as temperatures hovered in the 40s, Blyleven took him aside and told him politely – OK, maybe not all that politely – to cover his $500,000 arm pronto.
"I feel like a father again," Blyleven said, and he is one of sorts. As the pitching coach for the Dutch team that twice shocked the Dominican Republic and has advanced to the WBC second round, Blyleven inherited a group of pitchers from two strata: young major-league prospects with live arms, and older, established players from the Netherlands' Hoofdklasse without the talent to crack an affiliated organization.
How the 57-year-old Blyleven helped turn a slighted group of underdogs into the tournament's feel-good story isn't so much a surprise when considering what a longshot he was. Born Rik Aalbert Blyleven in the Netherlands, far from a baseball Mecca, he spent 22 years in the major leagues and can add this to a résumé that deserves Hall of Fame induction.
And yet the Hall has eluded him for 11 years, something that, in an odd way, keeps Blyleven attached to baseball. He spends most of his year as a popular color commentator for the Minnesota Twins, and as the second WBC approached, he wanted in after missing the inaugural one because of his daughter's wedding.
"I basically begged," Blyleven said.
General manager Robert Eenhoorn and manager Rod Delmonico couldn't say no. Only as Blyleven started preparing – looking at his pitchers' repertoires, figuring out who he could prod and who needed nurturing – he realized that it had been more than a decade since he last lent baseball advice in such a consistent fashion.
Blyleven's son, Todd, was a minor-league pitcher then. When Todd retired, he opened his own academy, Blyleven's Dugout, to teach youngsters in Huntington Beach, Calif. So this time around, father took something of a subservient role and asked son: How, exactly, do you do this coaching thing?
"He's my mentor," Blyleven said. "I try to be like him. He tells me, 'Dad, get them to throw strikes, dammit,' and I say, 'OK, son.' "
"Boy," Todd said, "it's nice to know he finally thinks I'm doing something right."
Todd inherited his father's sense of humor, Blyleven's lasting legacy alongside perhaps the best right-handed curveball ever. Now, let's get this out of the way: Even though Blyleven no longer sets spikes aflame, he has not grown up, not by any means. He still enjoys circling people on TV with his telestrator, and everyone on the Netherlands is a target for needling or a prank.
"He's such a normal human being," pitcher Pim Walsma said. "We come over here, and we don't know what to expect. Is he going to be a nice person, or arrogant, or standoffish? We've never really met a guy with as much success as Bert.
"He's a great guy. Great to work with and hang out with and learn from."
Blyleven tries to simplify his advice. Throw strikes, first off. And don't look at major-league hitters any differently, even if their salaries are well into the millions. Most of all – just as he told the 22-year-old Walsma when he walked the bases loaded in the first inning – have fun.
To emphasize that, Blyleven encourages his pitchers to yank their caps' brims down over their eyes. Not only does it help block out their peripheral vision of the stands, Blyleven said, it lends an air of intimidation, something pitchers who top out at 85 mph, as many of the Dutch do, sorely need.
"They're not virgins out there," Blyleven said. "They have been in pressure with situations the Olympics and things like that. These guys want to play baseball and win, and all I'm doing is instilling the power of positive thinking. Believe you can compete against anybody. If you make your pitches, you can get them out. A good hitter gets himself out seven of 10 times. Make it eight."
They have, and plenty are noticing. Scouts in Puerto Rico were stupefied at how the Netherlands' pitching staff, with mediocre-at-best stuff across the board, confounded the Dominicans. Credit filtered toward Blyleven, and were his contract calling Twins' games not three years long, he might try the pitching-coach racket for a living.
"We've talked this week, and I know he'd like to do it eventually," Todd said. "He has such a knowledge for the game itself, but also the mechanics of pitching, the mentality of it, what it takes to be a winner at that ultimate level. He's not a cookie-cutter guy."
Unless the shape is free-form. Blyleven is a blithe spirit, from his telestrator shape art to the head-shaving incident with Johan Santana, where he bet the Twins' former ace would not throw a shutout – and lost his locks when Santana did. So rather than think about the future, he's busy relishing what he and his charges have done.
Turn the Netherlands, an afterthought in international baseball, into a hot property. All without a lighter in sight.