By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Flores saw more than 60 of his players enter the big leagues, an extraordinary figure in the days before computer analysis and corporate funding for ballclubs. Some of the better ones didn’t stay with the Twins, such as Reggie Smith, who starred for the Los Angeles Dodgers during their heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Lyman Bostock, a wondrous hitter who became one of baseball’s first free agents but tragically died while playing for the then-California Angels in 1978.
But Flores’ most famous discovery by far is Bert Blyleven. Blyleven was a lanky sophomore pitching at Santiago High in Garden Grove when the two first met in 1967. By then, baseball scouts were already excited about the teen’s stuff, including a curve that would eventually lead him to 287 victories and the cusp of Cooperstown. The first meeting between the two, however, happened only because Flores was there to scout another pitcher. The pitcher didn’t show, and Blyleven took his place.
After that first game, Flores went up to Blyleven and offered a couple of tips: don’t rush. Stay back on your delivery. Throw better strikes. And work on that curve.
“Jesse wasn’t much of a conversation-alist, and neither was I,” Blyleven recalled in a recent interview. He now lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and works as a Twins television commentator. “He saw some flaws and worked with me on them. Other scouts were there, but Jesse was kind of overseeing everything.”
The two quickly struck up a friendship. Like Flores, Blyleven had come to Orange County as an immigrant (from the Netherlands) and saw baseball as an opportunity to better his life. The two couldn’t talk much outside of weekend games—baseball-tampering rules prohi-bited such conversations—but Flores struck up a friendship with Blyleven’s father. Eventually, the two men made a bet: if Bert made the big leagues in less than two years, Blyleven’s dad owed Flores a steak dinner. The Twins drafted Blyleven in the third round of the 1969 draft. He pitched a year later. Flores enjoyed the steak.
The Twins put Blyleven in their instructional league shortly after the draft. Flores was the league’s pitching coach and helped Blyleven immensely—and not just on his baseball skills.
“I almost killed myself in instructional league one time,” Blyleven says with a laugh. “Players had to find their own place to live and cook for themselves. I had never lived away from my home, and my mother always cooked for me. So one time, I bought some meat and put it in the refrigerator. Ten days later, I finally tried to cook it. It kind of looked brown, but I still ate it.
“An hour later, I started sweating and felt sick,” Blyleven continues. “The only person I knew was Jesse, so I went to him and said I feel terrible. I told him about how I had kept the meat in the refrigerator. He asked how long I kept it in there, and I said 10 days. ‘Oh, my goodness!’ he said. ‘You must have food poisoning!’ He called the trainer, and they gave me stuff to get the meat out of me.”
Blyleven didn’t see much of Flores after he made the big leagues, although he made it a point to work out with Flores’ rookie teams during winter league and spring training. “All the young kids respected him,” Blyleven said. “He was like a fatherly figure, someone you respected. You knew he had been in the game a long time and signed a lot of good major-league players. All in all, he wasn’t just a pitching coach, but also a friend. If you had a bad outing, he’d get you ready for the next one. If you had a good start, he wouldn’t let you get too high. You took the good with the bad, and that was what Jesse was about, like life.”
The two kept in touch once Blyleven left the Twins, talking every couple of months. Blyleven was there when Jesse’s wife, Consuelo, passed away and he became friends with Flores’ two sons, Steve and Jesse Jr., both of whom became renowned scouts in their own right. Blyleven and Steve still hold charity golf tournaments in the Inland Empire for hemophilia research.
“Jesse is someone I admired,” Blyleven says. “He was like a father figure to me. I put Jesse in the same column as my pops. They were two men who cared. That’s how you want to be remembered—as a man who loved what he did and had a lot of charisma to get the best out of other people.
“It’s easy to say a lot of nice things about Jess,” adds Blyleven. “Every time I think of him, I get a smile.”
THAT BIRD’S GOING TO MAKE IT
“My father gave money to whoever needed it,” Steve Flores said during a recent conversation. He currently works with the Texas Rangers as their head of scouting on the West Coast. “He drove an old Thunderbird, and we’d always tell him to get a new car. But he wouldn’t. He’d rather save money or give it to people. No questions asked. I’d always asked him why he gave it away, and he would always say, ‘Because they need it. Besides, if you give a loan, you’re probably not going to get it back.’ He once owned a gas station that went belly-up because he just gave [the gas] away.