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.”