For Oakland A's owner Charles O. Finley, the answer was the latter. It was that or nothing.
|Not putting star players on the cover means
never having to say you're sorry
A three-time 20-game winner, in 1971 Blue started the All-Star Game then captured the AL Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, heralding an era when the A's were the best team in the world.
As ever, the glory was fleeting.
Though he'd owned Athletics since 1960 and oversaw their transformation from doormats to champions, Finley had no interest in the free agent wars that rewrote baseball's rules in the 1970s.
Though his stars had won five straight division titles and three straight world series, when the bill came due, Charlie came up short.
After they won their last crown in '74, he balked at making promised payments toward a life insurance annuity for perennial 20-game winner Jim Hunter. The man called Catfish got his contract voided and signed with the New York Yankees.
Unbowed, the A's soldiered on. Led by Blue's 22 wins they won eight more games in 1975 than the previous year and another division title before being swept from the playoffs by the East Division champion Boston Red Sox.
The next season dawned with the dealing of superstar outfielder Reggie Jackson and pitcher Ken Holtzman to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Don Baylor plus pitchers Paul Mitchell and Mike Torrez.
Still, Oakland stayed afloat, winning 87 contests and finishing just 2 1/2 games behind the Kansas City Royals. Infielder Phil Garner emerged a star, as did 21-year-old outfielder Claudell Washington. Blue won 18 games, Torrez, 16. Ace reliever Rollie Fingers won 13 more while saving 20.
No Reggie? No Catfish? No problem? Not exactly.
Baseball's first genuine free agent class graduated that winter. With labor leader Marvin Miller playing Moses, shouting "let my people go!" A's players fled the Pharaoh Finley in droves. Rudi and Baylor signed with the California Angels. Fingers and catcher Gene Tenace went to the San Diego Padres. Shortstop Bert Campaneris inked a deal with the Texas Rangers and third baseman Sal Bando signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The championship core was gone. Blue, who had incongruously signed a three-year contract in 1976, remained, as did outfielder Bill North. He would be dealt to the Dodgers in May 1978 for outfielder Glenn Burke.
Churn, churn, churn. Garner and two others were dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a package that included reliever Doug Bair and prospects Rick Langford, Tony Armas and Mitchell Page.
Even the presence of Page, who was runner-up for Rookie of the Year, and the expansion Seattle Mariners couldn't save the A's from finishing seventh and last in the 1977 AL West. Blue went 14-19. Attendance fell to 495,599, less than half of what was two years earlier.
|Vida Blue, bottom right, in the land of the Giants
And then it did get worse.
In Dec. 1977, Finley traded Blue to the Cincinnati Reds for power-hitting minor league first baseman Dave Revering. Again, Kuhn interceded to void the deal. The Reds later swapped Revering for Bair.
Blue, twice traded and twice returned, went into spring training as an A. But not for long.
On March 15, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for seven players and $300,000 in cash. Oakland got pitchers Alan Wirth, Dave Heaverlo and John Henry Johnson, plus catcher Gary Alexander and outfielder Gary Thomasson. The Giants later threw in infielder Mario Guerrero, whom they'd signed as a free agent only months earlier.
They held the fort until reinforcements could ripen.
By 1980, Langford, together with Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough and Brian Kingman would form an effective starting rotation. Backed by outfielders Armas, Dwayne Murphy and Rickey Henderson, the Athletics went 86-76, good for second in the division behind the Royals again. Also in the line-up, Page, Revering and Guerrero.
Finley, perhaps somewhat vindicated, sold the club in August of that year.
Vida Blue won 18 games in his maiden season in San Francisco, but was never that good again. His declining career intertwined with a trade to Kansas City, drug abuse, a jail sentence, and a brief but respectable comeback. After going 10-10 with a 3.27 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 157 innings for the Giants in '86, he retired.
* An earlier version of this entry contained a typo, asserting the A's had lost 78 games in 1977. They'd lost 98.
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