After God knows how many years, sportswriters have finally elected pitcher Bert Blyleven to the baseball Hall of Fame. Most of the newspapers are reporting that Blyleven is an Orange County native, a graduate of Santiago High School in Garden Grove, but none have yet reported on the other Orange County connection: that it was Jesse Flores of La Habra that discovered him as a scout for the Minnesota Twins and served as a crucial mentor early in his career.
I interviewed Blyleven for my 2007 cover story on Flores, the third-ever Mexican to play in the major leagues. Flores discovered the pitcher during a high-school baseball tournament by accident--he went there to look at another player, who didn't play that game. Blyleven took his place, and Flores quickly made a bet with Blyleven's father.
From my story and Blyleven's recollections of Flores:
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."
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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."