Chief witness to Blyleven’s curveball.(Icon/SMI)
Phil Roof didn’t hit much over his 15-year career with the Twins, Angels, Indians, A’s, White Sox, and Blue Jays—he batted .215 with a mere 43 home runs—but he did play a role in the development of a Hall of Famer. Roof was one of Bert Blyleven’s early major league catchers.
Joining the Twins in the midst of the 1971 season, Roof would catch Blyleven from that summer through the middle of 1976. Known for his defensive prowess, his rapport with pitchers, and his ability to throw out base stealers (at a rate of 38 percent over his career), Roof came to know the Dutchman’s pitching tendencies better than most.
I talked to Roof, 70, prior to this year’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown, as he eagerly anticipated the entrance of his former teammate into the Hall of Fame. A longtime coach and minor league manager before retiring in 2005, Roof discussed his relationship with Blyleven, along with his unexpected return to coaching in 2011.
Markusen: Phil, you’re here for Bert Blyleven, a man that you caught early in his career. You saw that curveball first hand. Tell us a little bit about being Bert’s teammate.
Roof: Well, Bert was a fierce competitor at a very early age. He wanted to win in a bad way. He knew that he had enough stuff to get out there and put the opposition down. And I tip my hat off to him. He should have been in the Hall of Fame years ago. What a great career he’s had. I am honored that I was part of that.
Markusen: Now, we know the curveball was awfully tough to hit, but how about from a catcher’s perspective? Because of that extreme break, was it a difficult pitch to catch?
Roof: No, not at all. You knew that it had tight spin, and he threw it hard. You can always anticipate a breaking ball; you put more weight on one leg than the other so that you can shift. What was good about that in all those years that I caught him was this— I knew that when we got to two strikes, that guy was in trouble. You could throw that curveball almost any time with two strikes, and he’d get the batter out if he threw it over the plate.
Markusen: So well known for the curveball, but pretty underrated in terms of his fastball.
Roof: He had an above-average fastball to go along with the curve. His command early in his career was a concern; he couldn’t locate as well as you’d like to see. But he had that big hammer. Any time there was any doubt in my mind, then I called for the curveball.
Markusen: Was he a guy that you could talk to during a game? You always hear stories about pitchers like Gibson not wanting the catcher to come out and talk to them. Was Blyleven different from Gibson in that way?
Roof: He was always different in that way. He wanted input. You didn’t try to overload him with information, but you gave him enough input to get through that inning. And then you worked on the next inning. He was very receptive to that.
Markusen: We hear a lot about his pranks. Was that something he did right from the start of his career, or did that come later?
Roof: I was one of the older players, and I didn‘t see too much of it until later on, in the middle of his career. And then when I became a coach, on the other end of it with Seattle, his pranks were big time. By then he’d really established himself, and his mind was constantly working on doing something, or to somebody. He had a great career in that, too, when it came to pranks.
Markusen: Phil, let’s talk about you. What are you doing these days?
Roof: I’m retired [from managing]. I go to spring training every year, but this year [Twins bullpen coach Rick] Stelmaszek was out with an eye injury and Jose Marzan [a spring instructor] was having back trouble. Rick Anderson, our pitching coach, saw me throwing some batting practice in the early part of February, and he said, “Gardy [Ron Gardenhire] needs you. He’s in his office. Go in there.”
So I went in there, and he said, “I’ll talk to [general manager] Bill Smith,” and four or five days later, they asked me to join the team. I stayed with them all of spring training, and then three weeks into the regular season.
Markusen: One of the other events here in Cooperstown is the Hall of Fame Classic. We see the former players come out and play. Old-timers games, is that something you do?
Roof: Oh, I’m too old for that. I have a fantasy camp with the Twins in January, and I tried to hit. I mean, I was awful when I played, and way worse now! It’s fun to be there, and I still throw batting practice to the kids at fantasy camp. Now, if they asked me to coach again in the big league camp, yes, I would. Yes, sir. It’s a joy. It had been 20 years since I’d been up there in the major leagues as a coach. I had the same thrill this year as I did 20 or 30 years ago.
Opening Day at Target Field this year, I had the biggest goose bumps I’ve ever had. When Joe Nathan came out of that bullpen in the top of the ninth inning to close that game—he was out all of 2010, and this was his first appearance ever at Target Field—and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. I watched from the bullpen, and said to myself, “There’s nothing better than this.”