Vida Blue served as grand marshal for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday, and he did splendidly, nailing all four words – “Drivers, start your engines” — without a cough or stutter.
I had always heard that Vida is one of the coolest ex-superstar athletes to talk to, and he did nothing at the raceway to dispel that notion. He was patient, friendly, perky, funny. And honest.
When I asked Blue the fastest he’d ever driven in a car, he answered: “Unfortunately, it wasn’t on a road track. It was 580, going home late one night. I was in my Maserati, I was going about 110. I looked down at the speedometer and kind of backed off. … That was my impersonation of being a race car driver.”
Blue seemed anything but proud of the story, and noted that now he drives “in the grandpa lane, about four lanes over.”
He was most expansive when talking about pitch counts, which doesn’t come as a great surprise. This is a guy who threw 312 innings as a rookie in 1971, and exceeded 250 in six consecutive seasons from 1973-78 (his last five years in Oakland, and his first across the bay in San Francisco).
Asked if he ever operated on a pitch count, Vida said: “No, but I wasn’t making $10 million, either, though. They do that now to protect their investment, obviously. I mean, you gonna let Matt Cain go out there and throw 130 pitches a game? They’ve learned that very well, but it could lead back to guys – I’m not sure if they don’t throw enough. There’s so many Tommy John surgeries that have taken place this year. I’m not sure if they don’t throw enough. I can’t say they throw too much, because they’re limited to what they’re gonna throw anyway.
“But you have a setup man. I mean, even in my heyday, they still wanted me to get through seven innings. We didn’t know the term quality start back then, but hey, get me to the seventh and I’ll win this game.”
I asked Blue if he even knew how many pitches he’d thrown in a given start. He shook his head.
“And I didn’t want to know,” he said. “OK, I’ve thrown 80 pitches, so what? The game goes nine innings. Hard as you could, as long as you could, in my mind.”
Someone asked Vida to take a stab at the most pitches he ever threw in one game.
“I pitched a game against the Angels where I pitched maybe 11 innings,” he said. “You gotta guess 130-140-150. Buyou’re striking out 15 guys, though, so you’re throwing more pitches when you strike out more hitters.
“I think guys are conscious of how many pitches they throw because it’s on the board inside stadiums. And the speed gun and all this stuff. If I were a manager or pitching coach, I wouldn’t want my guys to see that. Because if a guy throws 99, he’s gonna try to throw 100. And if he sees he’s thrown 50 pitches in three innings, why would you try to limit your pitches. Just go out there and pitch as hard as you can as long as you can, hope that your team is leading, and whether you get the win or not, just hope you pitched well enough … to get your team the win.”
A little while later, Blue continued: “Two years ago, the Colorado Rockies had their guys, their starting pitcher, he would throw like 50 or 75 pitches. I’m like, that doesn’t make sense. So you just tax your bullpen. The starting pitcher would throw 75 pitches. He’s done. I don’t care if he’s got a perfect game or not. For some reason they went to that.”
Thinking as a pitcher, Vida was sniffing at the notion of a preordained pitch count. But he’s smart enough to see it from management’s perspective, too.
“Again, if I had $110 million invested in a guy, I’d wanna know how many pitches he threw,” he said. “And the coaches and the manager and the general manager, they’re on pins and needles, too. Should I let my starting pitcher, my million-dollar guy, my ace, should I let him go one more inning to throw 130 pitches, which (with) one pitch he could blow out his arm? They’re so afraid of that. Everybody’s afraid to make that decision. And the guy’s: ‘Ah, I got this, Skip. I’m good.’ Well, you know, we got Romo down, he hasn’t worked in a couple days, so let’s get him some work.
“So what do you do? What would you do if you were Bruce Bochy? Would you let Matt Cain throw a lot? Or Tim Lincecum? You just gave him $35 million. Would you let him throw extra? Then you gotta contend with the agent and shit, too.”
Oh, and if you’re interested, the old lefty thinks his first MLB team has a better shot at a World Series run than his second team right now – even though he’s on the Giants payroll.
“If I would pick one, I would probably say the A’s because they have a very well-balanced team,” he said. “They have a little bit more depth than the Giants have. The pitching probably matches up evenly.”