Now he is so painfully aware of his vulnerability that his defenses are never down. He takes refuge in outrageous clichés, in parody and in a technique much favored by the young: the put-on. Vida Blue, a star pitcher once again with the Oakland A's, does not seem to be enjoying his own comeback. It is a pity, for he is having a good one.
Blue won only six games and lost 10 in 1972, a season mortally wounded by a protracted holdout that cost him his physical condition, his pride and his popularity. He already has 15 victories this year, and until the Red Sox defeated him last week in Oakland, he had won six in succession and completed four straight starts. That streak was an important contribution to an August run by the A's in which they won 13 of 14 games and pulled five games ahead of Kansas City in the American League West. The new Blue is also considered to be a much smarter pitcher than he was two years ago, when he won 24 games, led the American League in earned run average and was both its Cy Young Award winner and its M.V.P.
"In the first part of 1971 Vida was overpowering everybody," said Sal Ban-do, the A's fine third baseman and team captain. "Now he is overmatching them. He found out that you can't throw the fastball for 300 innings. He has learned that he can get people out without throwing hard all the time. That gives him an extra advantage when he needs it because he still has the super fastball."
"We've got him throwing a changeup and a hard breaking ball," said A's Pitching Coach Wes Stock. "Vida's made up his mind he wants to be a good pitcher. Eighty percent of pitching is determination and he has all the determination in the world. He wants to prove that he's as good as he ever was."
If this is his intention, he hides it well. "I'm not trying to prove anything," he will say mildly, precipitating a bromidic torrent. "I'm just trying to do my job. I just keep pitching, win, lose or draw."
Obviously Blue is not wearing his fame comfortably these days. At 22 he was the biggest box-office attraction in the American League, an electrifying performer so beloved by fans that he could draw capacity crowds even in Oakland, where the response to the A's has been as cool as the summer evenings. At 23 he was a has-been, athletically old beyond his years. He had asked for a $75,000 raise in salary and he became for some an object lesson on the evils of greed. His fall was as spectacular and sudden as his rise. Blue sulked his way through 1972, grimly hoarding his privacy, barely speaking when spoken to.
"Vida tried very hard to be an s.o.b., but he's really too nice a kid to bring it off," said one member of the A's organization after last season.
It is difficult to determine what he is trying to be this year. A standup comic, perhaps.
"Awright, you ask me the question," he said last week, opening a familiar routine. "O.K., the question is, 'Why am I so much better this year than last?' Well, my answer is that I've got my leprechauns, my rabbit-foot and my four-leaf clover. I'm just lucky, that's all. Plain lucky."
Blue is lucky indeed to have as a confidant a teammate whose career closely paralleled his own. In 1969 Reggie Jackson was the game's newest home run hero, then he too lost a long contract argument with the intractable Charles O. Finley. He played the 1970 season with hurt feelings and his home run production slumped from 47 to 23. His batting average fell from .275 to .237.
Now Jackson has come all the way back. He is the American League's most feared hitter, its leader in home runs, RBIs and runs scored. He will also probably be its Most Valuable Player. At 27 he has become a mature and thoughtful man.
"I know what Vida is going through," Jackson said last week. "I've been there myself. I was too young to handle everything that happened to me and so is he. It's only human to doubt yourself, but when you're mad at yourself, you're mad at the world. What Vida has on his side is time. He's got plenty of time and that's a great thing to have."
Time has not lessened the excitement Blue generates when he pitches, although with his enlarged repertoire he does not throw that hopping fastball nearly as often. He still jogs out to his position and he still works with quick efficiency, throwing his left-handed darts out of a fluid, high-kicking motion. Where once he simply aimed and fired, now he spots his pitches inside and out confusing the hitters instead of frightening them as he once did.
He was more his 1972 than his 1973 self in a twilight game last week against Boston. He gave up five runs and seven hits—including a triple and a home run—before Manager Dick Williams removed him with two out in the second inning. He watched his teammates bat in their half of the inning, then quietly repaired to the clubhouse. He seemed unruffled by the experience. The day before he had said, "Baseball stays here at the ball park. When the last man is out, I'm a civilian again. I'm back to real life. When I leave here, I'm not Vida Blue, No. 14. I'm Vida Blue period."
It seemed a reasonable approach, but would it work for a pitcher who had just been knocked out of the box in the second inning? Apparently it could, for Blue was perfectly composed. No ranting, no furniture-thumping. He seemed intent upon transforming himself into Vida Blue Period as quickly as possible.
He is muscular and broad-shouldered, heavier by at least 10 pounds than he was in his glory year, but he has a boyish face that works as a mask in the mocking game he plays with strangers.
"You ask what's different about me. The answer is I'm older. Maybe I'm getting too old," he said.
He removed his undershirt and started unwrapping the tape around his socks.
"What happened tonight is what happens when your luck runs out. I pitched the same way as I did in my last start against the Yankees when I had a shutout. I was lucky then. I was unlucky tonight. It's as simple as that. Now I'm gonna take a nice long shower and go home and get a good night's sleep."
He paused for a moment, deciding finally to answer an earlier question.
"You ask about fame. Well, what I don't like about it is all the baloney you have to put up with. Some guys can put up with it. Me, I'm just not man enough to take it."
A man who can say that about himself may be more of a man than he thinks he is. Vida Blue is growing up.