A Tough Pitch: Friends, Relatives Say It’s Time For Vida Blue To Get It Together

By John Shea
Updated: July 5, 2005

Vidal Blue

Vidal Blue

SAN FRANCISCO — Not long ago, when the Giants invited sponsors and their guests for on-field batting practice against former big-league pitchers lobbing balls across the plate, a hulking young fellow hit one into McCovey Cove.

The next pitch was a high, hard one, and the guy hit the deck to avoid a beaning.

“Sorry ’bout that,” Vida Blue said. “Got away from me.”

Others around the batting cage giggled, but Blue had a straight-faced look of intensity, a reminder that the field, two decades after his retirement, still was his domain even when facing a batter wearing shorts and swinging an aluminum bat.

It’s a different story off the field. It always has been.

“He’s been through turmoil off the field,” former A’s teammate Mike Norris said. “Vida’s one of my top three baseball friends. He’s one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet, and that’s a gift. But now it’s all about him living a productive life. It’s up to Vida now.”

Blue, 55, recently completed 28 days at an alcohol rehabilitation center in St. Helena, partially fulfilling an agreement made May 16 for violating his probation from a 2004 DUI conviction. He then checked into a residential alcohol-treatment program (halfway house) in San Francisco, where he’s to reside in lieu of a six-month jail sentence, handed down in a San Mateo County Superior courtroom in South San Francisco.

Blue awaits another case in Arizona. He was arrested during spring training on suspicion of DUI after being involved in a minor accident in downtown Scottsdale — his third DUI incident in six years, including a no- contest plea after an August 1999 arrest.

Meantime, he’s on unpaid administrative leave with the Giants, the club said. For 14 years, he worked as a community representative, most recently as commissioner of the Junior Giants youth program. His popular “I want your car” radio commercials were scrapped immediately after his spring-training arrest.

The Giants told him he could return to the organization if he follows steps of a program laid out by the team, including completing his obligation at the halfway house.

Friends and relatives, knowing Blue’s stormy off-field history, hope and pray he’ll get it together once and for all.

“I love him and care for him,” former Giants teammate Bill Laskey said. “Vida realizes he hurt a lot of people, number one, his mother. He needs to take his lumps and fix this.”

Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, who was in Blue’s 1989 wedding on the Candlestick Park mound, said, “Vida’s such a wonderful guy. He’s been through a lot, but he likes to keep things inside. I went through some tough times myself, and sometimes you’ve got to open up and accept help from your friends.”

Perhaps nobody’s rooting harder than Derrick Blue, 37, who has had a strained relationship with his father. They’re not particularly close and don’t often speak, but Derrick’s hoping his father’s baseball legacy will be preserved and, more important, that he leads a healthy and productive life.

“His legacy means a lot to a lot of people,” said Derrick, who manages a sporting-goods store in San Leandro. “People like him. They come up to me and tell me stories and say they never heard a negative word about him. He’s in the BASHOF (Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame) and has left a pretty good impression on people. I don’t want that to change.”

On the other hand …

“I want to see him on the right track,” said Derrick, adding he’s open to being part of a support group for his father. “He’s definitely got to take some responsibility. He’s got to be accountable. I’m old enough now to ask, ‘What’s going on? What’s the problem? Talk to me.’ If he’s willing to follow his program …”

Thirty-four years ago, Vida Blue was a phenomenon. Before Fernandomania in 1981, there was Vida in 1971, captivating the sports world with his magnificent pitching and panache — one of every 12 paying customers in the American League that year paid to see him pitch for the A’s.

Blue won the MVP and Cy Young awards in ’71 and appeared on three World Series champions, and then he went to the Giants and had more spectacular moments. No one performed at such a high level on both sides of the bay, and no one who played for both teams has been as popular — as a player or person.

He is the only player to be an All-Star for both Oakland and San Francisco — Blue started the 1971 game as an Athletic and the ’78 game as a Giant. He was the first pitcher to earn All-Star wins in both leagues, in ’71 and ’81.

Off the field, when he walked into a room or participated in a function, he was usually the centerpiece, a vibrant and likable personality who made people comfortable, good around kids and accommodating among adults. You wanted to buy a drink for him.

In retrospect, that wasn’t always a good idea.

Blue’s career was blemished by substance abuse. His life, too.

Before the three DUI incidents, Blue was part of a baseball cocaine scandal involving the Kansas City Royals. He went to prison and was banned for the 1984 season.

“He’s got great people skills, and I think that’s been a downfall,” Derrick Blue said. “People have let him get away with more. People come to me and say, ‘He’s a great guy. He took us out drinking and partying.’ I cringe. That’s what’s wrong with being professional athletes, my dad included. People always telling them, ‘You’re right, you’re right, you’re right.’ It’s a fantasy world. ‘Let me get you a couple drinks. It’s on me.’ Or, ‘It’s on the house.’

“When I was younger, I went down to a rehab facility in L.A., and I don’t know if my dad took it real serious. People said afterward, ‘It’s over, you can have a beer.’ People laughed at Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin for hitting a home run drunk or getting in a barroom brawl. … It’s just not accepted behavior.”

Derrick has felt the effects of his father’s uneasy past, from changing high schools (the insults were tough to handle) to ending a relationship with a woman (the father-son friction interfered) to being depressed after the latest incident in spring training (“My heart sunk”).

Derrick and Vida spoke shortly before the incident and not again until Father’s Day. Derrick placed the call, and Vida was thrilled to receive it.

“Vida told me, ‘You won’t believe it, but Derrick called me and wished me a happy Father’s Day,’ ” recalled Bay Area publicist Sam Spear, a longtime friend of both men who was in Vida’s wedding and presented him at the 1995 BASHOF dinner. “It was as if Vida had just thrown a no-hitter.”

Vida Blue has two other children, twin girls born in the early ’90s, from his marriage with Peggy Shannon, whom he wed before a game at Candlestick in ’89 (they’re no longer in a relationship). His mother, Sally, still lives in Louisiana.

When reached for this story, Blue said he didn’t want to be interviewed because of legal reasons. When informed that friends and family were rooting for him to pull through his troubles, he seemed appreciative but said, “It’s not like I’m dying.”

Those close to him say it’s time for him to drastically change his lifestyle.

Norris knows from firsthand experience, based on his own struggles with substance abuse.

“I’ve been through it before. He’s been through it before. Nobody likes public humiliation,” Norris said. “Our previous thing was cocaine. It seems right now it’s alcohol with him. It’s called cross-addiction, getting off one drug and going to another.

“Vida’s a very bright man, and I’m sure he’s pondering what he should be doing, what he has to do to live a prosperous life. He’s got everything in the world to live for. I have all the confidence in the world in him. People will respect him more for sobriety than baseball.”

Norris, who said he hasn’t had alcohol in six years or cocaine since the mid-’80s, can relate to how Blue got dragged down by substance abuse.

“Baseball has a lot of flaws,” Norris said. “In my day, you were expected to drink in the clubhouse and in bars after games. The game presented a lot of bad characteristics. Vida’s the life of the party, and that can be problematic at times. When you’ve got that type of personality, you attract people in all walks of life. You try to be nice, so you say yes.

“Look at Barry Bonds or Reggie Jackson. People say they’re a — , but that’s their mechanisms for defense. You can’t let everyone in that circle.”

Norris won 22 games in 1980 but not more than 12 in any other season. He said substance abuse hurt his career, and Blue’s.

“I wanted to be the best black pitcher in the history of baseball, the first to win 30 games, but I screwed it up,” Norris said. “So you kick yourself in the ass about it. Maybe I could’ve been in the Hall of Fame. It sounds cocky, but winning 20 games wasn’t hard for me. (Substance abuse) led to my arm injury. Being addicted, you’re not going to eat or sleep. You can’t play this game without eating or sleeping.

“Vida had the best fastball I’ve ever seen, and that includes Nolan Ryan or anyone else. It was inevitable he’d go to the Hall of Fame. I believe (then- A’s owner) Charlie Finley turned him off to baseball. If he left him alone, there’s no telling what would have happened to this beautiful person.”

Blue was called up late in 1970 and no-hit the Minnesota Twins, a prelude to his sensational ’71 season (24-8 record, 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts in 312 innings), but he had a contract squabble with Finley the following spring — he actually found another job and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Vida Blue, Plumbing Executive” — and had a 6-10 season.

Blue didn’t come close to repeating ’71 but won 20 games in ’73 and 22 in ’75. Finley, who unsuccessfully pressed Vida to change his name to True, wanted to send him to the Yankees for $1.5 million in 1976 and a year later to the Reds for $1.75 million, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn vetoed both deals. Blue was dealt to the Giants in March 1978 for seven so-so players and $390, 000 and won 18 games for a ’78 team that contended through the summer.

He played for Kansas City in ’82 and was imprisoned 81 days along with three other Royals after he pleaded guilty to attempting to possess cocaine. After his ’84 suspension, he returned to the Giants in ’85 and ’86 and was to play for the ’87 A’s, but he retired amid reports of flunked drug tests.

As an employee in the Giants’ community-relations department, Blue has been a role model for kids, particularly through the Junior Giants program, and appeared at charitable events and clinics on behalf of the team. It’s uncertain how his duties would change if he returns.

“He misses being with the Giants,” said Laskey, an ex-pitcher. “I talk to him every other day, and I believe he’s on the right path now. In my mind, Vida’s not an alcoholic. That’s me speaking. Of course, he understands he was guilty, but situations come up that he has to learn to deal with. Like, Where’s the nearest hotel? Can I take a cab? Vida’s understanding of his priorities.”

Laskey inherited some of Blue’s roles with the Giants, and F.P. Santangelo took over the radio commercials.

Under terms of his probation in California, which was extended through May 2007, Blue is not to drink alcohol or go to bars or liquor stores. He’s to have an ignition interlock in his vehicle, which would prevent him from driving if he’s under the influence of alcohol.

He was stripped of his driver’s license and is subject to testing for alcohol.

“The organization wants to support Vida in his efforts to conquer his challenges,” Giants executive vice president Larry Baer said. “Anybody who’s spent any time around him knows he’s incredibly warm and a great spokesperson for the game, but obviously his priority is getting himself straightened out. We want what’s best for Vida, and what’s best for Vida is to be 100 percent sober and 100 percent clean.

“It’s in his hands.”