Poole: In memory of Vida Blue, Oakland’s first Superman pitcher originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
A country boy from a small town in Louisiana with an odd name came to Oakland as a 19-year-old, blessed with a fastball out of the heat heavens, and within six years he owned an MVP award, a Cy Young Award, three World Series rings and three seasons with 20 wins.
If only that could capture the sudden magnetism of young Vida Blue, who died on Saturday at the age of 73.
For those who grew up in 1970’s Oakland, Vida was the first Superman pitcher we got to see live and in color, the green and gold of the A’s as belonged to cranky showman Charles O. Finley. The three-time World Series champions of the early ’70s had great pitchers, Hall of Famers, but only Vida brought flames.
The crowd was entranced by a young left-hander who tamed All-Star’s bats with a fastball that was easier to hear than see. One punch, lean forward in the seat. Two punches, go to the edge. Three punches, stand and prepare to be amazed.
Every two-strike windup from Vida was a moment, not unlike Stephen Curry popping up from behind the 3-point line or Barry Bonds stepping into the batter’s box at the turn of the millennium. Anticipation ran through the stadium, in Oakland and elsewhere.
In my childhood home with a baseball fan mom in Louisiana, Vida was addressed by his first name as if he were a member of the family.
Vida’s “Blue Blazer,” as play-by-play man Monte Moore called his fastball, apparently clocked in the mid-to-late ’90s, with explosive moves. Sometimes it cut, sometimes it seemed to rise as it approached the slab. All we knew was that it was fast.
“He throws harder than Sandy Koufax,” Baltimore Orioles batter Boog Powell told Sports Illustrated. “He has an effortless movement, a smooth, compact delivery. He goes out for nine innings and doesn’t seem to be faltering.”
Blue was so popular — attendance at the Oakland Coliseum doubled or tripled for its starts — that Finley asked his manager and staff to mix up the rotation to maximize their home exposure.
Other brilliant pitchers have captivated the baseball world for a number of years. The Tigers had Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. The Dodgers had Fernando “El Toro” Valenzuela. The Mets had Dwight “Doc” Gooden. The Marlins had Dontrelle “D-Train” Willis years later.
All were weaving magic out of the mound, but none blasted the scene with the sheer power of young Vida. He threw his first one-hitter five weeks after his 21st birthday. Ten days later he threw a no-hitter.
The following year, 1971, Vida directed a season that reads like fiction. Within the six weeks leading up to Memorial Day, he won 10 straight games and walked in all but one nine innings. He knocked out 10 or more batters 13 times, including a 17 in an 11-inning shutout. He finished with a 24-8 record, 1.82 ERA, .952 WHIP and 301 strikeouts in 312 innings.
This was the Vida Blue phenomenon, making the cover of not only Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News magazines, but also the cover of Time magazine.
The attention Vida received was of a magnitude he could not have imagined.
“It’s a strange scene,” he once told reporters. “You win a few baseball games and suddenly you’re surrounded by reporters and TV guys with cameras asking you about Vietnam and race relations.”
He had actually come a long way from DeSoto High, a segregated school in Mansfield, La., where he once fielded a seven-inning no-hitter with strikeouts accounting for every out — but lost by 10 walks.
After a brief run through the minor leagues, Blue was promoted to the A’s at age 19, largely because Finley saw dollar signs. Not many pitchers have electric stuff, especially at 19, so he ordered the boy into the big leagues.
Vida’s first two seasons were meager, totaling 18 appearances, 10 starts, with mixed results. He was clearly in a hurry.
“It was a shame raising a boy like that if he didn’t play pro for two years,” said legendary Joe DiMaggio, then Oakland coach. “He throws as hard as anyone, but he hasn’t learned to throw yet.”
In its third season, in 1971, Vida was a champion. The second half of his career was uneven; He was 110-67 in his first eight seasons with Oakland, 99-94 in his final season with the A’s, followed by stints with the Giants and the Kansas City Royals.
In the final years of his career, Vida struggled with off-field issues — including a cocaine charge that landed him in jail for three months — that derailed a career en route to the Hall of Fame.
As an adult in sports media, I got to know a little bit about retired Vida. I would touch his left arm. “See if you still have it.” He would giggle, curse, giggle again.
As a kid chasing baseballs for batting practice in the stands of the Coliseum, time stood still when Vida conquered the hill. The memories will live forever.