Now he is so painfully aware of his vulnerability that his defenses are never down. He takes refuge in outrageous clich�s, in parody and in a technique much favored by the young: the put-on. Vida Blue, a star pitcher once again with the Oakland A's, does not seem to be enjoying his own comeback. It is a pity, for he is having a good one.
Blue won only six games and lost 10 in 1972, a season mortally wounded by a protracted holdout that cost him his physical condition, his pride and his popularity. He already has 15 victories this year, and until the Red Sox defeated him last week in Oakland, he had won six in succession and completed four straight starts. That streak was an important contribution to an August run by the A's in which they won 13 of 14 games and pulled five games ahead of Kansas City in the American League West. The new Blue is also considered to be a much smarter pitcher than he was two years ago, when he won 24 games, led the American League in earned run average and was both its Cy Young Award winner and its M.V.P.
"In the first part of 1971 Vida was overpowering everybody," said Sal Ban-do, the A's fine third baseman and team captain. "Now he is overmatching them. He found out that you can't throw the fastball for 300 innings. He has learned that he can get people out without throwing hard all the time. That gives him an extra advantage when he needs it because he still has the super fastball."
"We've got him throwing a changeup and a hard breaking ball," said A's Pitching Coach Wes Stock. "Vida's made up his mind he wants to be a good pitcher. Eighty percent of pitching is determination and he has all the determination in the world. He wants to prove that he's as good as he ever was."
If this is his intention, he hides it well. "I'm not trying to prove anything," he will say mildly, precipitating a bromidic torrent. "I'm just trying to do my job. I just keep pitching, win, lose or draw."
Obviously Blue is not wearing his fame comfortably these days. At 22 he was the biggest box-office attraction in the American League, an electrifying performer so beloved by fans that he could draw capacity crowds even in Oakland, where the response to the A's has been as cool as the summer evenings. At 23 he was a has-been, athletically old beyond his years. He had asked for a $75,000 raise in salary and he became for some an object lesson on the evils of greed. His fall was as spectacular and sudden as his rise. Blue sulked his way through 1972, grimly hoarding his privacy, barely speaking when spoken to.
"Vida tried very hard to be an s.o.b., but he's really too nice a kid to bring it off," said one member of the A's organization after last season.
It is difficult to determine what he is trying to be this year. A standup comic, perhaps.
"Awright, you ask me the question," he said last week, opening a familiar routine. "O.K., the question is, 'Why am I so much better this year than last?' Well, my answer is that I've got my leprechauns, my rabbit-foot and my four-leaf clover. I'm just lucky, that's all. Plain lucky."
Blue is lucky indeed to have as a confidant a teammate whose career closely paralleled his own. In 1969 Reggie Jackson was the game's newest home run hero, then he too lost a long contract argument with the intractable Charles O. Finley. He played the 1970 season with hurt feelings and his home run production slumped from 47 to 23. His batting average fell from .275 to .237.