1971-Most Valuable PlayersApril 29, 2009
The only way the images shown here could be more alive would be if the baseball Joe Torre just swatted ricocheted off the wall to your right and smacked you upside your head, or if Vida Blue took one more step out of the frame and into your life.
When I was a kid, that’s basically how I experienced these cards anyway, especially the Vida Blue card. Was he waving at me? Was he flashing a peace sign? Was he about to saunter just a little closer, out of the card and into my room, and touch me on the forehead with the two upraised fingers of his left hand, like he was some kind of blessing-giving pope of happiness and cool?
What actually ended up happening was that I stepped toward him, unconsciously seeking out that blessing. He wasn’t hard to find, his spectacular season in 1971 setting him up for a decade of charismatic superstardom. And as the years went on and his stardom waned, his numbers exerted a tenacious pull, especially the season referred to in the card here, from 1971, a few years before my time. In that year Blue was as good as anyone ever has been, especially in the first half of it when he won sixteen of his first eighteen decisions. He finished the season with an ERA of 1.82 and 301 strikeouts. Going into that season, only five men since 1900 had surpassed the 300-strikeout mark (Rube Waddell, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Sam McDowell; Mickey Lolich joined Blue in the 300-K club in 1971), and none of them had done it as early in their lives as the 21-year-old Blue. I’ve been a baseball fan during some incredible seasons by young pitchers in their first full seasons—Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, and Doc Gooden jump to mind—and I would have to think Blue’s 1971 campaign must have been as exciting and supernaturally promising as any of them. Oddly enough, had he managed to keep up the pace he set in his first full year, I don’t think he would have exerted the same lasting pull on me. He would simply be an All Time Great. As it was, his one legendary year, followed by several good to excellent years, lends Vida Blue some added magnetism as a cult hero. He may not be on display in Cooperstown but he’s available to offer a blessing to anyone who makes an effort to step toward him.
Joe Torre took a different path to his career year, climbing toward it through several seasons as a good and ever-improving major league player. This is what life is supposed to be like, right? You work hard and keep trying and eventually you reach the top of the mountain. In the face of voluminous evidence that the world is much more cruelly random than that, there was a reassuring sense of rationality to Torre’s climb to the top. If Blue with his youth and his psychedelic name and his peace sign represented a New Age and the belief in an ecstatic instant flash of enlightenment and vision, the veteran Torre represented the clean-cut old guard, what the Nixon camp called the “silent majority”: You punch the clock, you do your time, you mind your own business, you don’t dance around naked with pupils the size of dimes, and eventually you carve out a life for yourself.
The two MVPs made up a fitting cross-section for the times, odd-named iconoclasts on one side, Regular Joes on the other. As the years went on, the lines between these two cultural entities got blurred. Hair either got shorter or longer, depending on which side of the divide you were on, and the divide itself got blurrier, and everyone started to look a little unkempt and haggard. That’s certainly how I remember Joe Torre looking when he was manager of the entertainingly terrible Mets of the late 1970s, and Vida Blue, after leaving the A’s, always seemed to have a slightly dazed expression on his face, which was always cocked a little to the side, as if you had just said something that he didn’t quite catch.
From there, Torre repeated the long grinding, upward path of his playing career in a long, grinding managerial career that saw him steer a few teams to a succession of failures and mild successes before hooking on with the Yankees for a run that clinched him an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. Unlike Torre, Vida Blue has not remained in the game’s spotlight. This has helped, paradoxically, ensure that he will live forever as the 21-year-old who had all the magic of the world in his fingertips.