Sport: A Bolt of Blue Lightning

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(8 of 10)

The way has not been easy. First of all, there was Charley O. Finley. When Blue turned red-hot this season, the A's flamboyant owner came to him with a proposition: "I'll give you $2,000 if you go over and have your name legally changed to Vida True Blue. We'll take the name Blue off your uniform and have them use True. I'll tell the broadcast boys to call you True Blue. How's that?" That, said Blue, sounded like ole massa was bestowing a pet name on one of his slaves. He refused.

"Vida was my father's name," he says.

"It means 'life' in Spanish. I loved my father. Now that he's dead, I honor him every time the name Vida Blue appears in the headlines. If Mr. Finley thinks it's such a great name, why doesn't he call himself True O. Finley?"

Finley just harrumphed, but later he presented his prize pitcher with a new powder blue Cadillac with license plates reading V BLUE. "The car cost $10,000," says Finley, "and Vida came to me and said, 'Mr. Finley, that nice big car is fine. But that thing is going to take more than I make in a year to drive, what with upkeep and gas.' So I told Vida, 'O.K., I agree,' and the next day he had a credit card from me. A couple of weeks later, he came to me again and said, 'Mr. Finley, that nice car is great. But I don't dress like a man who drives a Cadillac.' So I gave him a check for $1,000 for a new wardrobe." Blue and Finley are both aware of the game they are playing. As a $13,000-a-year hireling, Vida is clearly the biggest bargain in baseball. And come contract-negotiating time next year, the bidding could possibly start at $100,000.

Is success spoiling Vida Blue? Not according to his teammates. Though it would be easy enough to resent him (when Finley gave Blue the Cadillac, one pitcher cracked: "If I win four games do you think Charley will give me a Honda?"), Oakland First Baseman Mike Epstein reflects the sentiments of all: "He's got it. He's a nice, likable kid. Nonassuming. It's hard for a kid getting the press like he's getting, but he comes and does his job." Mrs. Sallie Blue agrees. "He's a wonderful boy. He never changes. They make this fuss over him, but he's the same Vida. The only difference is now he paces the floor when I talk to him. He just keeps walking back and forth, kind of nervous and fidgety."

The symptoms are familiar. What's bothering Blue of late is the mounting crunch of success. Says he: "You go to a town and the newspapers say 'sensational this' and 'sensational that,' and there may be 30,000 or 40,000 people out there at the ballpark. They're all staring and wondering whether I'm for real, whether I'm a robot, whether I'm human. There's a guy on third and nobody out, and they expect you to strike out the side. Not maybe two ground balls and a strikeout. No, three straight strikeouts they want. Nine straight strikes to be exact. But I'm no miracle man. I can be hit nine miles just like anybody else. If you throw a strike, you're gonna get hit and I don't care who you are. Somebody is going to hit you, man. You're gonna pay the dues."

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