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.