The year was 1970. It was Sept. 21, and a promising 20-year-old U.S. baseball pitcher with the Oakland Athletics was making one of his first career starts against Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew and the Minnesota Twins.
The pressure didn’t faze the September call-up: a lean, fireballing, Louisiana southpaw by the name of Vida Blue. During that game, Blue struck out nine Twins and, more amazingly, he didn’t allow a hit while walking only one batter.
The next season, as a true rookie, Blue went an incredible 24-8 with a 1.82 earned run average en route to the 1971 Cy Young award, given to the best pitcher in the league, and the Most Valuable Player award.
Blue, having retired in 1986 to later become community relations representative with the San Francisco Giants, recently visited Costa Rica and has committed to helping develop baseball in this little, soccercrazy country.
“We’re trying to take on the process of bringing in baseball in Costa Rica,” Blue said. “I am committed to doing whatever I can to promote baseball in Costa Rica.”
Plans are still in their infancy but could include minicamps for local kids and the construction of a new stadium in San José, offering an alternative to the current Antonio Escarré baseball stadium in the neighborhood of San Cayetano.
“It’s in the preliminary stages right now,” Blue said. “We’re on the right track … I’m going to put myself on the line and say we should be able to do something by this time next year.”
Behind the efforts, and behind Blue’s visit to the country, stands Eric Todd Neuvert, baseball fanatic and president of Costa Rica developer Paradigma Construcción, S.A. “What we want to do is see Costa Rica develop with us,” Neuvert said. “We start with technique. We like the National Baseball Federation’s (FCB) efforts in clinics and helping teams get the proper equipment.”
The company has been seeking ways to contribute to the community here, Neuvert said. He believes that one of the biggest things he could do is share the game he grew up loving with a generation of children who otherwise might never experience the joy it gave him.
“The best thing we can do is start with the kids,” Neuvert said. “I’d like to see us get to the point where we can build a good stadium.
That’s going to take time, but the big names are going to help. Vida will also try to lure his big-league friends here.”
Blue hasn’t spoken to any of his associates yet, but friends such as former slugger Chili Davis and all-time hit leader Pete Rose are likely targets for his recruiting.
As for the stadium, it may be a while yet until a new one is built.
Blue got a chance to throw out the first pitch for the Costa Rican championship game between San José and Santo Domingo at the Antonio Escarré ballpark. He stayed for part of the game, but left because the fans wouldn’t leave him alone.
“I didn’t get a chance to assess the pitchers,” he said. “I said, ‘Play fair, have fun and may the best team win.’”
The pitcher opted to visit Costa Rica during a critical moment for baseball fans: the Major League All-Star Game.
“Vida Blue had an option to go to the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium (in New York City) in its final season,” Neuvert said. “And he said, ‘No, thanks, Costa Rica is more important to me.’”
Blue, a six-time All-Star himself, had had plenty of experience with the festivities. So while Josh Hamilton, an outfielder with the Texas Rangers, was in the process of blasting a record 28 tape-measure shots into the New York night during the first round of the Home Run Derby, Blue was experiencing some firsts of his own.
“I got to do the two things I wanted to do: go to the rain forest and go to the Rawlings (baseball) factory (in the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba). I saw a coati,” he said.
While the balls that are used in the big leagues in the United States are made here in Costa Rica at the Rawlings factory, very few Ticos play the game or even know the rules.
Baseball is popular in both Nicaragua and Panama. Both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the FCB are hoping to promote the game here to the level of its neighbors to the north and south.
“We are trying to make baseball popular here,” said Rodrigo Vargas, president of the FCB. “One of the best ways is to get bigleaguers here. It is great to have a player of Vida’s caliber teach the fundamentals to the kids. We are going to have a beautiful relationship with MLB to develop the game in this country.”
The country already has pockets of interest, particularly in the Caribbean port city Limón.
“Limón is where baseball is most developed in the country,” Vargas said.
Some Ticos are working toward pro careers in the United States.
“Costa Rica has about six players right now who have in the last few years entered into Major League systems,” said Jorge Delgado, international instructor for MLB’s Envoy Program. “Ticos are also playing in colleges in the States at a high level and facing the draft.”
“The first day Costa Rica has a player in the Major Leagues, it can be a really big day for baseball here,” Delgado said.
But even with these promising developments, there are still obstacles in the way. “Baseball is an expensive sport in countries like Costa Rica,” Delgado said.
“Baseball is more expensive than soccer,” Neuvert explained. “You need a glove, a bat, a ball. We can help with that.”
With programs like Neuvert’s and the presence of pros like Blue, the sport may finally have the legs it needs to hit all of Costa Rica’s bases.
And the slogan pasted on the walls of the hotel conference room where Blue spoke seemed too perfect and obvious a match to fail.
“Pura Vida Blue.”