Bert Blyleven, Hotfoots, Justin Verlander

Verlander Turns Up Heat in Tigers’ Dugout

You want old-school? You can’t handle old-school. At least not if you’re Don Kelly.

Actually, Kelly handled it pretty well last week, after Justin Verlander went about as old-school as modern ballplayers can go in setting his teammate’s shoes on fire. Kelly, in a spectacularly measured response, stamped out his flaming foot, then went about his business as if nothing had happened. (Watch it here.)

Hotfoots, once a clubhouse staple, have become increasingly rare in recent years. Whether coincidence or spectacular tribute, Verlander’s prank coincided with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Bert Blyleven, the undisputed master of the craft.

Verlander’s work was first-rate, but he still has a ways to go by Blyleven standards. From The Baseball Codes:

Bert Blyleven pitched in the major leagues for twenty-two years, and if Cooperstown applied the instigation of podiatric discomfort as one of its entry criteria, he 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 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 whom to blame. Blyleven, the following day’s starter for the Angels, found out later that Lefebvre offered a hundred dollars 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.”

So nuts that he made a point of getting people when they didn’t expect it. The dugout benches in the old Yankee Stadium, for example, had enough room for a 6-foot-3, 200-lb. man to crawl underneath them, the better to reach unsuspecting victims. Once, however, the plan backfired.

“I was all ready to give [Indians manager] Pat Corrales a hotfoot,” he said. “We had a nice lead and Corrales was a manager that you could have fun with, so I tried getting him. And just about when I was ready to get him, my feet started burning. Rick Sutcliffe was back there, lighting me up.”

At that point, even the mayor of mischief had to abandon his post. “What else could I do?” he said. “I was on fire.”

– Jason

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Bert Blyleven, Bert Blyleven, Don't Peek, Hotfoots

A Selection of Blyleven, in Honor of the Hall

Today we’re honoring Bert Blyleven’s acceptance into the Hall of Fame with a pair of Byleven-based excerpts—the first from The Baseball Codes, and the second from the book’s initial draft, which didn’t make the final cut.

The right-hander’s kookiness is legendary, as was his penchant for practical jokes—one in particular.

The undisputed master of the hotfoot was pitcher Bert Blyleven. The right-hander pitched in the major leagues for twenty-two years, and if Cooperstown applied the instigation of podiatric discomfort as one of its entry criteria, he 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 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 whom to blame. Blyleven, the following day’s starter for the Angels, found out later that Lefebvre offered a hundred dollars 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.”

The unpublished excerpt has to do with the topic of peeking—a hitter looking backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs. This, as Blyleven explains, is strictly forbidden.

The day before one of his starts as a member of the Minnesota Twins, Bert Blyleven was watching his team’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers on the clubhouse TV. Incredibly, he could swear that as Paul Molitor fiddled with the bat resting on his shoulder, the hitter took the opportunity to look back at catcher Tim Laudner.

“I ran down between innings and told Laudner, ‘Next time Molitor comes up there, you tell that son-of-a-bitch that I’m pitching tomorrow, and I caught him peeking.’ Well, the next time Molitor gets in the box, I see my catcher talking to him. Laudner told him, and you could see Molitor step out and kind of shake his head. After the inning was over I went over to Timmy and said, ‘Timmy, what’d he say?’ He said, ‘Tell Bert I’m not peeking.’ Well, I saw him peeking.”

When Blyleven started the following day, Molitor led off the game. “I damn near knocked his helmet off,” said Blyleven, whose intimidation set the stage for strikeouts in Molitor’s first two at-bats. “He was a pretty easy out the rest of the day.”

The point being that the absence of concrete evidence didn’t matter a bit. Blyleven thought Molitor was peeking, so Molitor was peeking.

So congratulations, Bert. The Hall of Fame is about to become a much livelier place.

– Jason

Bert Blyleven, Clubhouse pranks, Hotfoots, Jim Lefebvre, Joe Torre

Blyleven Just Short of Cooperstown, but a Charter Member of Hotfoot Hall of Fame

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.”

– Jason