NEW YORK -- Their paths to the Hall of Fame were as different as the men themselves, but Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven both came to professional baseball as teenagers, capably enduring the challenges of the low levels of the Minor Leagues thanks to the way they were raised.
For Blyleven, known for his durability and his devastating curveball, the journey began in the Gulf Coast League in 1969, when he was 18 years old. He pitched in Sarasota for the GCL Twins in seven games before being promoted to the Florida State League's Orlando Twins, who came in first in their division before losing the circuit finals. The next year, Blyleven pitched eight games in the Triple-A American Association, picking up his first pro shutout (he would notch 60 during his 22-year Major League career) and throwing two complete games (he tossed 242 in the Majors).
"Jim Perry, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Dave Boswell were the [Twins'] four starters when I came up in Spring Training as an 18-year-old in 1970," Blyleven said. "There was no room for me."
By June, though, a spot opened up.
"I went down, pitched in Triple-A until Tiant and Boswell got hurt, darn it, and I got my shot to get to the big leagues."
Though Alomar's rise through the Minors was more orderly and less meteoric, he too made the Majors for good by the time he was 20, having played for four Minor League teams from 1985-1988. The multi-tooled second baseman spent time at each level from Class A through Triple-A (although the Padres called him up after just nine games with the Pacific Coast League's Las Vegas Stars in '88).
What he remembers the most about his time in the Minors, though, was the hardship of coming to the Sally League's Charleston Rainbows as a 17-year-old Puerto Rican with an extremely limited English vocabulary.
"I didn't know how to speak English. I used to go to Wendy's, and the only thing I knew how to say was, '1, 2, 3,'" recalled Alomar. "It was an experience, especially coming to a different country, coming to the States, not knowing the language, not knowing the people real well. It was a challenge, a challenge for me.
"If you have certain goals in mind, you have to not let that bother you so much -- how tough it is."
Alomar played well enough to start the next season in the California League, where the 18-year-old led the loop with a .346 batting average and smacked 24 extra-base hits. He credited a strong support network, including his father, Major League veteran Sandy Alomar.
"I had the support of my family [and] the support of my teammates," he said. "I think my father went through tougher [things] than I went through. He taught me that if you want to reach your dream in baseball, you're going to go through some tough times in the Minor Leagues. And I did, but I survived."
Blyleven, who was born in Holland but raised in Garden Grove, Calif., faced a different adaptation to life in the pros.
"The Minnesota Twins sent me to Melbourne, Fla., for a little bit of [extended] Spring Training before we went to Sarasota," he recalled. "I remember walking off the plane -- [having grown] up in Southern California, where they had no humidity -- and in July, my shirt stuck to my chest, and I could hardly breathe right when my feet hit the ground."
The GCL Twins skipper, Fred Waters, didn't exactly provide his Rookie-ball players with daily pool parties.
"My first manager was Fred Waters, and he was an ornery old guy that was very, very hard," he said. "We played mainly night games because it was in July and August, but he would have all the pitchers come out at one o'clock. And we would run, and we would run, and we would run. ... He kind of found out who wanted to play or not."
Blyleven always knew, no matter how often his shirt stuck to his chest, that he was among those who wanted to play.
"I remember he had a meeting one time, and there were probably 40 of us in this room. He said, 'I want to see a show of hands. How many of you guys want to play Winter Ball?' And I raised my hand right away, and I think a couple of other guys did," he said. "Everybody else wanted to go home. I didn't want to go home. I wanted to play baseball."
Like Alomar, Blyleven stayed dedicated in large part because of the way he'd been raised and the support system he developed along the way in the Minors.
"My parents came from Holland and had $72 in their pocket when they landed in Canada. We emigrated into the United States and lived in a small house, and [the children] were expected to go out and work and be part of a family that united together," Blyleven explained.
"I was very, very fortunate to have good people like Fred Waters [and other] guys that were my managers in the Minors. ... It's who your mentors are. My dad was a hard worker. I had a goal, and that was to get to the big leagues. And I wanted to get there as quick as I could. It took me three and a half months, and I should have made it in two," he said.
"Since Little League, I have worked so hard," said Alomar. "I thank my dad because he gave me the best advice: 'If you want to be a ballplayer someday, you have to work hard [from] Day 1,' and that's what I did."
"I went through a lot," Blyleven admitted, "but I finally got here."