May 31, 1971
The mercurial upswings and downturns in the life and major league career of Vida Blue were effectively captured on the two occasions he appeared on SI covers. Blue made the cover the first time (above) after he got off to a 10-1 start in his first full big league season, for the Oakland A's, pitching a complete game in each of his wins. He went on to finish 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, throwing 312 innings and going the distance in 24 of 39 starts—the latter accomplishment virtually unapproachable nowadays, when complete games are as rare as two-hour ones. The lefthanded Blue won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards that year and, at 22, appeared destined for Cooperstown.
So why did his next cover appearance, on March 27, 1972, carry the billing VIDA BLUE, PLUMBING EXECUTIVE? In seeking compensation for his brilliant '71 season, Blue was holding out for a $77,750 raise, which would have increased his salary to $92,500, and was threatening to quit the game and go to work selling bathroom fixtures. Oakland owner Charlie Finley offered him $50,000. "I don't believe in these unjustified, astronomical salaries athletes are demanding today," said Finley. Blue finally relented on May 2 and signed. Nevertheless, the psychological miseries engendered by his holdout cost him dearly. Though the A's went on to win the World Series in '72, Blue finished a dismal 6-10 with only 151? innings pitched.
He had mixed results over the next 11 seasons with the A's, the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals—winning 20 games twice more and losing 19 once—and then was caught by a sting operation in the fall of '83. Blue pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and served 81 days in prison. In '85 he returned to baseball, with the Giants, but after two .500 seasons he retired, with 209 career wins. In doing so, he acknowledged he hadn't completely kicked his drug habit. "I reached the point where I had to choose between baseball and life," he said. Recalling that decision, he now says, "I needed to work full time getting myself back on ground."
Today his feet are resolutely planted on terra firma. Always a charmer, he is in his seventh year as a Giants Community Representative. He speaks out against drugs at schools and clubs; dresses up as Santa Claus for inner-city youngsters; serves as commissioner of the Junior Giants, a youth baseball program. "I know how it is to be young; you think you're invincible," says Blue, now 47. "My problem gave me a wake-up call. Now I like seeing myself as a person who can bring some joy to others' lives."