The baseball Hall of Fame is a tough nut to crack. Tell you something you don’t already know, right?

But I don’t mean it’s difficult for a player to achieve Cooperstown enshrinement, though it undoubtedly is.

No, what I mean is that it’s really hard for us as fans (or writers or players or whatever you might be) to figure out who should be in the Hall of Fame.

Sure, some of the choices are clear — Willie Mays, in. Von Hayes, out (though it pains me to say that). But then there are all the in-between guys. Guys who either played for a long time and put up big overall numbers because of it, or guys who didn’t play all that long but were fairly blistering in their primes.

In that first group, you have dudes like Tommy John and Harold Baines.

In that second group, you find the likes of Albert Belle and Sandy Koufax.

And then, of course, there are the pariahs, guys who have somehow or another alienated a large swath of fans and voters. Guys like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, Curt Schilling, Vince Coleman. (OK, maybe Coleman has other issues affecting his HOF candidacy.)

On top of all that, you have shifting ideas about what makes a great player. More and more, modern evaluators of all types don’t care much about things like batting average, runs batted in, ERA, or pitching wins. At the same time, Sabermetrics has helped establish new standards with strange names like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), OPS+, ERA+, defensive runs saved, and on and on.

All in all, the picture is messy.

1984 Donruss Champions Bert Blyleven

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But that also makes it fun. I mean, we’re no longer just debating whether Mike Trout is better than Mickey Mantle, but also the relative merits of Jim Rice and Bobby Grich. Did Rice’s dominance in the late 1970s and early 1980s in traditional areas like home runs and RBI trump Grich’s long-term excellence when viewed through more analytical lenses.

To this point, you’d have to say yes since Rice is in and Grich is out, but you’d get plenty of arguments these days if you said Rice was the better player overall.

So when I laid out my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, I knew Day 33 (today) would be particularly, um, challenging. Because today, I’m charging myself with talking about a card of a player who made it to the Hall.

I could have taken the easy route and picked out a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie or some achingly beautiful Frank Robinson card from the 1950s or 1960s. But, as great as those players were, they weren’t all that fun when it came to the Hall of Fame, because everybody knew forever that they’d both slide right in.

You want a guy who made the debate really fun? One of the first I can remember is Bert Blyleven.

A quick rundown of Blyleven’s Major League resume reveals …

  • 22 years spread among five different franchises
  • A 287-250 record with a 3.31 ERA
  • 3701 strikeouts over 4970 innings
  • A single 20-win season (1973)
  • Three top-five Cy Young award finishes (1984, 1984, 1989) but no top-two finishes
  • 430 home runs allowed, including 50 in 1986 and 46 in 1987
  • A World Series championship with the 1987 Minnesota Twins
  • A 1.198 career WHIP
  • A 118 career ERA+
  • 95 (!) career WAR

Basically, on the surface, Blyleven falls into that Tommy John-Harol Baines class of players who stuck around forever and consequently piled up a bunch of numbers. But those last three lines tell us something else.

They tell us that Blyleven was more than just an “accumulator” — he was an elite pitcher for two decades, at least by Sabermetrics standards.

In fact, JAWS has Blyleven as the 16th greatest starting pitcher EVER, nestled right between Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton, and far, far ahead of recent inductee Jack Morris. Like Morris, though, Blyleven had to wait a long time to get the Cooperstown call. In fact, it took him 14 full turns through the electorate, finally gaining enshrinement in 2011.

But Blyleven didn’t have to wait that long to get his due from everyone.

In 1984, Donruss complemented their breakthrough base set (you know, the one with the Don Mattingly rookie card), with a couple of oversize issues.

First, Action All-Stars returned for a second year, and Blyleven was included.

1984 Donruss Champions Bert Blyleven (back)

More pertinent for this discussion, though, “Be Home” Blyleven also found his way into the 60-card Donruss Champions issue. That set showcased then-current players who excelled in one phase of the game or another, then compared them to the all-time leader in that category.

For instance, Mike Schmidt was paired with Hank Aaron since both gents knew a thing or two about home runs.

Blyleven drew an even tougher comparison partner, as Donruss linked him on the career strikeouts list with the great Walter Johnson. Admittedly, Blyleven’s stats look anemic there in black and white underneath those of The Big Train, but the Dutchman would indeed eventually surpass Johnson’s mark of 3508.

And, while that Donruss card does mention Blyleven’s otherworldly curveball, it doesn’t touch on another area where he was at least within Johnson’s universe: shutouts.

While Johnson finished with an out-of-reach 110, Blyleven stands ninth on the all-time list at 60, just one behind Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan for pitchers who began their careers after 1960.

So, is Bert Blyleven in Walter Johnson’s class as a starting pitcher? Of course not, but he’s not as far removed as you might think on an average day full of hyperbole around players with bigger “names.”

And Blyleven is, absolutely, a deserving Hall of Famer … and a Champion.

Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.

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