More than 40 players gathered for a fundraiser that benefits year-round youth baseball clinics, including the annual appearance of 80-year-old Orioles legend Brooks Robinson, the MLBPAA's longtime president. Hall of Famer Tony Perez, all-time left-handed saves leader John Franco, Mudcat Grant, Rick Ankiel and Steve Rogers were just some of the former players who gathered to help the cause.
Blyleven, a Twins broadcaster, may have captured the mood of the night when he was presented his award by Twins legend Jim Kaat, and then finished his speech by recognizing Byron Buxton, the Twins' 23-year-old center fielder, who was seated in front of him.
"We love baseball. That's why we're here. The game is in good hands," Blyleven told the crowd at Capitale in Manhattan. "Guys like Byron Buxton, he's got the torch right now. Jim Kaat gave me a torch, I took it. Byron, it's yours. You move forward with this game of baseball."
Gardner told Buxton in his own acceptance speech: "I'm 34 years old, turned 34 in August. Byron, enjoy it because it flies by. As a fellow outfielder, you're a lot of fun to watch, man. You've got a bright career ahead of you, and the way you run down those balls in the outfield, it's pretty special, except when it's against the Yankees."
With a devastating curveball, Blyleven became one of the best and most consistent pitchers of his generation, ending his 22-year career with 287 wins, 3,701 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.31. He compiled 4,970 innings pitched and finished 16 of his 22 seasons with 200-plus innings pitched. He won World Series in 1979 with Pittsburgh and '87 with Minnesota.
Blyleven's subsequent broadcasting usage of a telestrator in the booth, with a proclivity to circle Twins fans who would show up at other ballparks, led to the "Circle Me Bert" campaign, and that now benefits research for a cure for the same Parkinson's disease that his father had.
"Now every home game in Minnesota, the Minnesota Lottery lets you buy $100 worth of scratch-off tickets if our sideline reporter finds the right sign that says 'Circle Me Bert.' We've had nuns, four nuns in a row had a big sign and had a big circle with their face in there. How could I not circle them? We didn't give them money for making that circle."
Blyleven was inducted into Cooperstown in 2011, a year after the other Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Dawson.
Al Oliver presented his former Montreal teammate with that one, and Dawson regaled everyone with tales of Oliver's 22 cologne bottles that used to sit in his locker. Dawson recalled how he used to follow Oliver's fashion lead, and how they used to work on their Jheri curl hairstyles together.
"It's the reason my hair looks like it does today," Dawson said, pointing to a shiny pate. "Jheri curls take their toll."
"The Hawk" was an eight-time All-Star who led the National League in total bases twice and collected 2,774 hits over his 21-year career. His 1987 NL MVP season with the Cubs was about as good as it gets for a player moving to a new team, coming over from the Expos. Dawson sits alongside Willie Mays and Barry Bonds as the only players to have 400-plus home runs and 300-plus stolen bases. But Dawson, a special assistant to the Marlins president from 2000 through this past season, said he almost hung up his spikes due to knee problems that would require 12 surgeries.
As for the Lifetime Achievement Award, Dawson joked: "It either means you're gettin' old, or you don't have too much time left.
"I almost thought about quitting after my fourth year because I had a fracture in my left knee," Dawson said. "The pain was so excruciating that I said to myself, 'There's no way I can continue at the pace that I used to.' I had talks with individuals, my wife in particular, who kind of told me that 'this too shall pass.'"
This event is the primary fundraiser for the series of free Legends for Youth Baseball Clinics. These clinics impact more than 16,000 children each year, allowing them the unique opportunity to interact with and learn from players who have left a lasting impact on the game. There were 151 youth clinics in 2017 and 10 coaches clinics in nine countries, with Kaat's visit to New Zealand among them.
"It means the alumni have come a long way," Robinson said of the success of this event and its reach to kids. "We've been around over 30 years, and it took about 15 or 16 years to even get recognized. But thanks to a lot of people's help, and the Major League Baseball Players Association have contributed greatly to our organization, and we're doing a lot of wonderful things now with the kids. There's a lot of interest. We're trying to give kids a safe place to play, stay off the streets and enjoy themselves.
"After a wonderful World Series, the interest is just as high as it's ever been."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Follow him on Twitter @Marathoner and read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com/blogs hub. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.