One of the highlights at our
Turn-Back-the-Clock Day was seeing my old friend Vida Blue again. “The
Blue Boy,” one of the more friendly and down-to-earth personalities among star
athletes, held court in the A’s dugout prior to Saturday’s game against the
Pirates, along with former teammates Joe Rudi, Campy Campaneris and Mike Norris. Sometimes, I think we forget just how
talented those A’s teams were in the 70s.
In the case of Blue, I have always wondered why his name hasn’t gotten
more serious consideration for Baseball’s Hall of Fame. The case can still be made.
For a younger generation who
has fussed and fawned over the early exploits of the Giants’ two-time Cy Young
Award winner Tim Lincecum, they may not be
aware that a 21-year-old Vida Blue may have done a better impression of “The
Freak” than even the Freak does. In 1971, 21-year-old Blue became a national sensation on the mound. In leading the franchise to its first
postseason berth in 40 years, Vida
posted a 24-8 record and led the American League in ERA (1.82), complete games
(24), shutouts (8) and strikeouts (301).
Barely drinking age, Blue won the Cy Young Award and also was voted the AL’s Most Valuable
Player. In fact, he is just the 5th pitcher to win a league MVP
trophy in the last 39 years!
Yet, it was the way Blue smothered the opposition that
really resonated with baseball fans. Not
only was he a fan favorite in Oakland,
he was a major gate attraction in every Major League ballpark he pitched
in. He was so athletic on the mound and
truly a blend of pitchers from the previous decade. His high leg kick was kind of a cross between
Marichal and Warren Spahn, with a fastball that would consistently approach or
hit 100 MPH, he was reminiscent of another lefthander, Sandy Koufax. Like Koufax,
the “Blue Blazer” would start waist high to a batter, and then explode upwards
above the letters.
Many veteran sportswriters,
like the San Francisco Chronicle’s
talented Bruce Jenkins, have spoken about
players “passing the sight test” when it comes to being voted into the Hall of
Fame. While statistics can tell a story,
you don’t need batting averages or career wins to find a real Hall of Famer. It’s how they played the game. And that was Vida Blue. When he took the mound, it was instant
excitement and like all worthy Hall of
Famers, he dominated during his
era. In some ways, I think Vida has been
the victim of playing on teams with so much talent. It took
Cepeda many years to enter Cooperstown, as voters were reluctant to add another Hall
of Famer from those Giants teams that already featured HOFers Willie Mays,
Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry or those Cardinal teams that were anchored by HOFers
Brock, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. Same for Tony Perez, who deserved enshrinement for years but was hurt by
the presence of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose on those magnificent Big Red Machine clubs.
Had Blue not become a
contract holdout prior to the 1972 season, who knows what kind of numbers he
might have recorded as a follow-up to his eye-popping 1971 MVP campaign? As it was, his first start of 1972 did not
happen until May 28 and he struggled to a 6-10 mark. That being said, Vida still went on to scroll
career statistics and honors that certainly should require closer Hall of Fame
examination, even at this late date.
- Blue was a 20-game winner three times over a
five-year period, also boasting 20-9 and 22-11 seasons in 1973 and 1975,
- He was a six-time All-Star and finished in the
Top 7 in ERA and Cy Young voting five times during his career.
- Vida threw one no-hitter (1970), one combined
no-hitter (1975), and three one-hitters (1970, 1971 and 1976) during his career.
- He still leads
A’s in career shutouts (28), strikeouts (1,315), complete games (105) and
innings pitched (1,946), and ranks second in career victories (124) to
Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter.
- And, of course, he also was a key pitcher on
three consecutive World Series championship teams in 1972-74.
But if that isn’t enough
proof that Vida may very well belong in Hall of Fame, take a look at his career
statistics as they compare to some other pitchers who already have plaques in Cooperstown. Blue
compiled a 209-161 record and 3.27 ERA in his career. The Dodgers’ Don Drysdale posted a 209-166 lifetime mark. Jim Bunning
was 224-184 with an identical 3.27 ERA. Robin Roberts went 286-245 with a 3.41 ERA. Even Catfish’s numbers, while slightly
better, are comparable: 224-166, 3.26
ERA. And while Koufax’s career was sadly
cut short due to severe arthritis, Blue posted 44 more victories, six more
complete games and only three less shutouts than the Dodger southpaw.
Some critics of Blue’s
candidacy might point to his 1-5 record and 4.31 ERA in postseason play during
his career. But to hold that against him
would be like dismissing others who had brilliant regular season showings but
yet-than-stellar playoff performances (Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Cepeda, to
name a few). And it should be noted that Blue only allowed 55 hits in 64.2
innings in those playoff games.
Others may suggest, even if under their breath, that Vida
has not gotten serious Hall of Fame consideration due to his well-documented
battle with personal demons, during his 17-year career. Perhaps, that theory has some validity. Yet, if voters–even the Veterans Committee–are
dismissing Blue as a bona fide Hall of Famer because it’s “a character issue,”
I say this: what really is
character? Is it being human and making
mistakes, or is getting up off the ground and overcoming those mistakes? Like all of us, Vida is not perfect. He has made his share of miscues, both on and
off the field. But I’ve know him for
nearly 20 years, and I am aware of the countless good deeds he has done in this
community. He has served Northern
California’s youth well, visiting schools, hospitals and playgrounds, sharing
his powerful message that even a former Cy Young and MVP winner can make mistakes
which could have a profound impact on your life. However, unlike some teachers or speakers,
when Vida talks to these teenagers, he bravely offers himself as a real-world
So, when you see Vida Blue
at the Oakland Coliseum at an Old-Timers or Turn-Back-the-Clock day, don’t
forget just how great the kid from Mansfield,
La. was. I was there back in 1971 and I witnessed it
first hand. He was truly one of the
When I think of St. Louis, it reminds me of the old Texas football line. “We have two sports here. Football and Spring Football.” Well, when
it comes to the Gateway
City, the only sport that
really matters is baseball.
Never did I realize it more
than when I took the PR job with the NFL St. Louis Cardinals in 1986. A quick glance at the St. Louis Post Dispatch said it all. It was the middle of December, we’re
playing the Philadelphia Eagles at the old Busch Stadium, and smack dab at the
top of the sports page, there’s an offseason story about the baseball Cardinals’ manager Whitey
Herzog and the lineup he’s contemplating for Opening Day, which by the way, is
still four months away!
And why not? When you’ve won 10 World Series titles in
your history and paraded the likes of Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Dizzy Dean,
Rogers Hornsby, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and Bob Gibson in Cardinal uniforms
through the years, it’s no wonder an entire region of the Midwest becomes
baseball crazy. And like the Bay Area, Cardinals fans have been blessed with
some classic broadcast voices over the past century…..Harry Caray, Dizzy Dean,
Joe Garagiola, Milo Hamilton, Red Rush, and of course, the voice of Redbird baseball, booming over the powerful airwaves
of KMOX Radio, the late, great Jack Buck.
So, for those of you A’s
fans attending this weekend’s games at the new Busch Stadium–or even those
watching on Comcast SportsNet California–the atmosphere will feel more like a
college football game than a typical major league contest. The fans, who flock from as far away as Louisville, Indianapolis or
all be wearing red gear, head to toe. These
red-clad faithful literally take over downtown St. Louis several hours before a game. Teams used to stay at the Marriott across the
street from the stadium, but the hotel lobby was insane. Fans everywhere, waiting for players to sign
autographs or merely passing the time by sipping a lager brewed blocks away by
the town’s legendary beer company. No
question, Cardinal fans are as knowledgeable as any in the country. But there’s almost a time warp feeling about
a game in St. Louis,
a kind of naïveté really. It could just
as easily be the 1950s and Stan the Man is stepping to the plate.
Thank goodness the days of
that awful Astroturf at the old Busch Stadium are gone, however. As a visiting team, there was nothing more
maddening than watching Willie McGee hit a soft single to right center that
just picked up speed and rolled itself into a standup triple. Or your pitcher, nursing a one-run lead in
the ninth, jamming Ken Reitz with a fastball, yet somehow his routine grounder
sprouted eyes and found a hole to the outfield for a game-tying single. Of course, now visiting teams only have to
contend with three-time MVP Albert Pujols, former A’s slugger Matt Holiday and
perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Carpenter.
If you bring up the merits
of interleague baseball, you’re likely to be bombarded by many divergent
views. There are those who love the unique
matchups and rare appearances, yet there are those who believe the AL vs. NL concept–DH or
no DH–has run its course and may not be worth compromising the integrity of a
schedule. I’m not here today to fuel the
debate either way. I’m here today to
revel in one of the A’s best road trips of the season, or any season.
Starting with tonight’s game
in “the friendly confines” of Wrigley Field, Oakland visits two of baseball’s
greatest bastions in Chicago and St. Louis–cities where baseball is king. In my past years in the game, I have had the
pleasure of working many games in each city.
For A’s fans attending their first games at Wrigley, you’re in for a
real treat. Yes, there is the brick and
the ivy and the organ music, but there’s a lot more. It starts outside the park. The pre-game vibe spills out onto the streets
surrounding Wrigley. Stops at the famed
Cubby Bear Lounge on Addison
Street or Bernie’s Tavern on Clark
In fact, when I was working
for another major league team, an unnamed broadcaster and I actually left the
premises during a fourth-inning rain delay and sampled a fine local ale at
Bernie’s while engaging with die-hard Cubs
fans in a heated conversation about
whether Mark Grace was a future Hall of Famer. And, of course, there are
Chicago-style hot dog places everywhere you look. The name escapes me, but my favorite was
located on a strand of property right next to Wrigley. Beyond the onions, peppers and pickles, what
I remember most was this bright relish that was a cross between nuclear and
neon green. My buddy knew the joint’s
owner and he would buy a five gallon jug of the stuff every time he visited to
take back home to the Bay Area.
Of course, one of the
privileges of being a PR man is your experience carries over to the press box,
and the view of Wrigley from on top is spectacular. You see the ivy walls, the high-rise
buildings and Lake Michigan beyond, and in my
case, it also gave me a chance to say hello to an old friend, the long-time
radio voice of the Cubbies, Pat Hughes. We
both laugh when recalling our early days, when I was Stanford’s Sports Information
Director and he was a skinny, wet-behind-the-ears young broadcaster doing college
baseball and volleyball on San Jose-based Gill Cable TV, a forerunner of Fox
Sports and Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
Besides working with the
ever excitable Ron Santo in the booth, Hughes has earned his own place in the
hearts of Cubs’ fans with his professional yet somewhat folksy style of
announcing. I’ve had so many memories of
Wrigley Field over the years:
- Meeting Bill Murray in the press
box as he was warming up for his “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” extravaganza in
the seventh inning, that wonderful Cubs’ tribute to the late, great Harry Caray
- Watching Chicago fans on Mitch Williams Poster Day
shower the field with a poster of his likeness after he blew a ninth-inning
- The love affair Cubs fans
once had for Sammy Sosa as he repeatedly launched home runs onto Waveland Avenue.
In fact, speaking of Sosa,
I’ll share a little anecdote that ESPN’s Chris Berman once shared with me. As Sammy was posting cartoonish offensive
numbers in 1998, there were some who thought Sosa would not only exceed Roger
Maris’ home run mark of 61 but also had a legitimate shot at reaching Hack
Wilson’s RBI mark of 191. Wilson, a fireplug (5-6,
195) of a man, was with the Cubs when all games at Wrigley were played during
the day. While it was baseball in its
purest form, those day games posed a problem for many a Cub player. The notorious nightlife of Chicago cheated some major leaguers of not
only hours of sleep but perhaps years off their careers. Although
some night baseball had been introduced at Wrigley by 1998, Berman assured Sosa
record was safe: “Sammy, you will never
accomplish what Hack did.” “No, no, Boomer, I really think I can do it,”
Sosa pleaded. Berman, shaking his head
for effect, responded, “No you can’t Sammy.
Hack didn’t just drive in 191 runs in a season. His record is driving in 191 runs with a
Later this week, I’ll share
with you some thoughts and memories about the A’s next stop, the Gateway City
of St. Louis.
Even though our road trip
finale at Fenway Park may have resembled pinball more than baseball–a combined 17
runs and 32 hits spewed off the bats of the A’s and Red Sox–I’m here today to
discuss the most unsung facet of our team:
In this new age of baseball,
where power hitting is declining and there’s a resurgence of dominant pitching,
it would appear that general managers like Billy
Beane are placing a higher premium on speed and defense. You may not see a remix of the Los Angeles
Dodgers, circa 1963, or the St. Louis Cardinals, circa 1985. However, over the course of a 162-game
schedule, we should not underestimate the value of great glove work.
It can and will make a profound impact on the final
standings. As I mentioned in an early
offseason blog, the acquisitions of Kevin Kouzmanoff and Coco Crisp signaled a
clear sign that Billy was making every effort to fortify our defense. And, judging by our current team fielding
percentage, not to mention the improved range of many of our fielders, this new
emphasis is paying big dividends and, perhaps, helps explain how we’re flying
home tonight tied for first place in the AL West.
After all, look around the
infield–Kouz has reeled off 24 consecutive errorless games and seems to make all the tough plays at third base,
especially with runners in scoring position and the game on the line. Cliff Pennington is a fielding machine at SS,
ranking third in the AL
in fielding percentage in his first full season with the team. Mark Ellis owns one of the best career
fielding percentages for a second baseman in major league history, and when he
was on the DL this year, Adam Rosales was nothing short of brilliant as his
replacement, joining Dustin Pedroia as the only two second basemen in the
majors yet to make an error this season.
And while Daric Barton has seven errors pinned to his name, that does
not tell the whole story. He’s made
spectacular plays daily–he may turn the 3-6-3 double play as well as anyone in
baseball–and has also been an ironman in starting every game this year. Then you look behind the plate and see
Suzuki. Enough said.
And while we would be exceptional
if Crisp was healthy and patrolling center field, manager Bob Geren still runs out one of the league’s better
defensive outfields in Rajai Davis in center, Ryan Sweeney in right, and Gabe
Gross in left. Sweeney was a human
highlight reel last year, and while he hasn’t been quite as spectacular this
season, he’s been every bit as effective with his polished play and rifle arm
in right. Davis simply outruns the baseball in center.
He also sports a very underrated throwing arm, not only in strength but
also in accuracy. And Gross has been a
revelation in left during the road trip.
His leaping over-the-fence robbery of a certain home run by Gerald Laird
in Detroit Saturday, and then his on-the-money throw that cut down Brennan
Boesch in the Tigers’ finale were both defensive gems. And when he replaced a woozy Sweeney midway
through yesterday’s finale, Gabe uncorked another beauty that cut down Darnell
McDonald trying to score from second on a single. In fact, he became only the 4th
outfielder in last 20 years to have an assist from two different OF positions in the
Add this kind of stellar
defense to an emerging young pitching staff that, despite a few bumps on the
road trip, must be considered one of the AL’s
best, and timely hitting may be all required for this club to stay in playoff
contention. Yes, playoff contention.