Once again, Bert Blyleven found himself on the cusp of Cooperstown. Once again, he came up short. Even if the fact that he won more than 19 games only twice and made only two All-Star teams over the course of a 22-year career is enough to deter Hall of Fame voters, there’s one area in which Blyleven was baseball’s undisputed king: the hotfoot.
There are myriad ways to set a teammate’s cleats on fire while he’s still wearing them, and Blyleven mastered them all. The following excerpt from The Baseball Codes has more:
If Cooperstown utilized the instigation of podiatric discomfort as part of its entry criteria, Bert Blyleven would have been enshrined five years after his 1992 retirement. How good was he? For a time, the fire extinguisher in the Angels’ clubhouse read, “In case of Blyleven. Pull.”
Ordinary hotfoot artists settle for wrecking their teammates’ cleats, but Blyleven was so good that he took the rare step of drawing the opposition into his line of fire. In 1990, the pitcher, then with the Angels, set his sights on Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre, who made the mistake of conducting an interview near the Anaheim dugout. Never mind that Lefebvre was there at the request of then-Angels analyst Joe Torre; Blyleven was deeply offended. There was, in the pitcher’s mind, only one appropriate response.
“I crawled behind him on my hands and knees,” Blyleven said. “And I not only lit one shoe on fire, I lit them both on fire.” Torre saw it all, but continued the interview as if nothing was happening. As Blyleven retreated to the dugout to enjoy the fruits of his labor, he was dismayed to see that Lefebvre refused to play along. “We all stood there and watched the flames starting,” said Blyleven. “The smoke was starting to come in front of (Lefebvre’s) face, but he was not going to back down. By god, he was going to continue this interview. And Joe was laughing, trying not to roll.”
Torre offered up an apology as soon as the interview wrapped, but Lefebvre was too busy trying to extinguish his feet to pay much attention. He also knew exactly who to blame. Blyleven, the following day’s starter for the Angels, found out later that Lefebvre offered $100 to anyone on his team who could hit a line drive off the pitcher’s face. Part of the reason the manager was so angry was that he was deeply superstitious about his shoes; in fact, he continued to wear the scorched pair for several weeks, despite the damage.
In the end, Lefebvre wasn’t the prank’s only dupe. “Bert really screwed me up with that one, because Lefebvre thought I was in on it and I wasn’t,” said Torre. “Lefebvre didn’t think it was very funny—they were brand-new shoes and he got embarrassed in public. Blyleven was nuts—absolutely nuts.”