Vida Blue stepped smartly from the mound, and as he approached the Giants' dugout, he tipped the bill of his cap to acknowledge a standing ovation and blew the crowd a giant diaphanous bubble-gum bubble. Blue was acting for all the world like a man who had it made. Which was appropriate. He had just made the Giants' roster off his performance that day, March 22, pitching four innings against the Padres and allowing only one run, his second impressive outing of the spring. A radar gun clocked one of his fourth-inning fastballs at 93 miles per hour, a speed comparable to that of his best years. The next day, Giants general manager Tom Haller announced that Blue would be signed to a one-year contract. Manager Jim Davenport has him ticketed for long relief and spot-starting on the revamped Giants pitching staff, while not dismissing the possibility that he could work his way into the starting rotation.
Simply making the team was a triumph for Blue. He has not pitched in a major league game since Aug. 5, 1983, when the Royals summarily released him. At the time, he was 0-5 with a 6.01 ERA, sorry stats for a pitcher who had won 191 games and was 28 strikeouts short of 2,000 for his career. But that was hardly the worst of it. He was convicted of drug charges, suspended from baseball and sentenced to prison. He served 81 days in a minimum security facility in Texas. The once-effervescent Blue seemed, to all intents, down and out. But he fought and, he says, licked his drug problem, worked himself into playing condition and reported to the Giants' camp as a non-roster player. It was obvious from the beginning he was a changed man. (He also was a richer man, having recently won a $1 million to $1.5 million breach-of-contract suit against the Royals.) Blue worked harder than any Giant, then spent his off-hours signing autographs and chatting with fans. He talked freely to the press about his past problems.
Haller and Davenport, Giant teammates from the glory days of the early '60s, are hoping that Blue will be symbolic of a team rejuvenated after losing a San Francisco franchise-record 96 games and finishing last in the NL West in '84. Davenport, who has spent all but two of his 30 years in baseball as a Giant, has waited patiently for a chance to manage the team and, if nothing else, has introduced one element sorely missing from last year's losers—enthusiasm. "Everything seemed so negative in '84," he says. "I like to see players with smiles on their faces." Indeed, Blue isn't the only one smiling. Another lefthander, Atlee Hammaker, the league ERA leader in '83, is also trying to come back from rotator-cuff surgery. And like Blue, he was impressive in most of his spring games.
The Giants' starting pitching, even if Blue and Hammaker don't make it, should be stronger in '85. It couldn't get much worse than the league-high 4.39 ERA of last year. But Dave LaPoint, who came in the trade with St. Louis for Jack Clark, and Jim Gott, in from Toronto for Gary Lavelle, should help, as should reliable if unspectacular returnees Bill Laskey and Mike Krukow. Also acquired in the Clark deal was shortstop Jose Gonzalez, who has since changed his name to Jose Uribe.
Like the pitching, San Francisco's defense was the worst in the league last season, but the availability of centerfielder Dan Gladden, who hit .351 after being called up in June, and Manny Trillo, hurt much of last year, at second base will improve the D. Ex-Card David Green adds offense and defense at first.
Who knows, the Giants might even be smiling in October.