For seven long years of increasingly bad luck, Vida Blue seemed aptly named.

No baseball, career ever started so high, nor headed downward with such a slow, inexorable progression.

Blue, at 21, was the best pitcher in the game, with promise of becoming the greatest in history. His debut calling-card in 1971: 301 strikeouts.

Last year at the Oakland southpaw again led the American League - in defeats and hits allowed.

Blue had learned about melancholy. "Go work for Charlie Finley for seven years and see how you feel," Blue said. "Spend five years in contract hassles and see if it makes you bitter. Watch the best team in baseball get auctioned off around you."

And watch yourself slip from 24-8 (1.82 ERA) to 14-19 (3.83) - from non-pareil to mediocre.

Five months ago, Blue took a trip for his health - across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, from Oakland to the Golden Gate city.

Vida left his blues in Oakland, and once more, no pitcher in baseball has an arm more golden than the 29-year-old toast of San Francisco.

This season has been nothing less than a Giant quest for Blue, an attempt to bring his baseball life full circle. Blue's symbolic grail is the Cy Young Award - a prize no pitcher has won in both leagues.

Blue, whose 16-6 record with a 2.66 ERA in 200 innings has the Giants only one game out of first place, is a heavy favorite to achieve his goal.

"It's so nice just to be Vida again," he said, his face open and playful.

"Over the years I've been robbed of a lot of pleasure. At first, people took advantage of my youth and niceness. I felt strained because I wanted to oblige everybody. I had to learn to protect myself."

Few players have had Blue's allotment of traumas. His second season was a disaster, progressing from the spring training "restricted list" (holdout) to arm trouble to a 6-10 record in 1972 and finally to a permanent psychic scar.

"I'm the last of the fast ball pitchers." Blue said. "I play old-fashioned hardball."

That is part competitive temperament, but also part harsh experience. Blue's first encounter with arm misery frightened him so deeply that part of his youthful vow to "protect himself" was to protect his invaluable left arm.

Blue has consistently refused to throw the elbow-killing slider. Ninety percent of his pitches are fast balls, the highest ratio in baseball.

"Sink 'em, sail 'em and rise 'em," he said. "But they're all fast balls. I have a very good breaking ball, which I use very little. When I reach back for something extra on the first ball and the well is dry, then sometimes I throw more curves."

Spending half a career as the least wealthy of baseball's great pitchers has made Blue reluctantly pragmatic.

Never again will he take the mound, as he did in '71, thinking of striking out every man in a no-hitter. His pitching style is now patterned for the long haul, the extended profitable career, not the nova blast of short-lived brilliance like Sandy Koufax.

Nevertheless, Blue's simple, gravelin-the-gut style makes him enormously appealing - both to fans and players. He makes the inherently deceitful art of pitching seem manly the stuff of powerful drama.

"Blue's such a damn good battler, the way he puts his heart and soul into it, that he really impresses me," said Philadelphia slugger Mike Schmidt.

"He's a gamer," Schmidt added.

No other pitcher in a baseball fills Blue's role of undisputed team leader. "Let's tell the truth," said Giant third baseman Barrell Evans. "Vida has willed this team into the pennant race since the day he walked into spring training.

"He's led us by word and by deed. His desire rubs off on all of us. He just won't let us die, and now we've reached the point where we don't think we're going to."

"Vida even comes out of the dugout at home and leads the fans in cheers," says Giant President Bob Lurie.

"I remember when we first traded for Vida . . . all the stories you heard about his disenchantment with the game in Oakland . . . We thought we knew he wasn't like that, but how can you ever be sure?"

Blue's first comment, "Now I'm gonna find out just how much money Bob Lurie's got," didn't help the coowner sleep well.

"Since the day Vida reported to camp," Lurie said, "he's been the single most positive move we've ever made. We're very close to agreeing on a multiyear contract. We're sure it'll be signed before the season is over."

"I always felt that I could be a leader," Blue said. "It's natural to my personality, but it hasn't come out before in my major league career!"

The Giants watched Blue, who reported to spring training late, with a skeptical eye.

"This is a fast ball hitting league," said Madlock. "A lotta people doubted that Vida could win here with just one pitch. Man, in his first start, Cincinnati just beat on Vida's head.

"Vida said, "Just wait and see." His second start was also against the Reds. And he just mowed 'em down. From that game on, this team has been alive."

"Sure, we'd heard stories that Vida had sulked in Oakland, and that he was fed up with the game after all the times (Commissioner) Bowie Kuhn had voided the trades he was supposed to be in.

"It's hard to believe that stuff when you see how much he loves to play now. This is all like a new toy to him."

Blue and Willie McCovey are the only Giants to whom a pennant race is an old toy.

Blue has appointed himself team psychiatrist. His postgame interviews - conducted in a firm, confident voice - greatly resemble subtle pep talks to his eavesdropping teammates.

On the field, Blue also sets the standard for proper behavior - especially important on this Giant team where excellent pitching and poor defense must learn to coexist.

"Some pitchers look at you after you make a bad play like you just murdered their sister," said Madlock.

"Vida's no prima donna, he just gives you a little wink like be knows you tried your best. Then he takes the ball back up on the hill and guts his way out of the jam you put him in."

"Vida'll stop the game to stand on the mound and clap for you after you make a good play," said Evans.

The Giant have reached the point where they can give Blue a pick-me-up. After winning 10 straight decisions. Blue was shellacked Aug. 10 in Los Angeles, 12-2. In his next outing, Wednesday. Blue lost a three-hitter, 1-0, to a Woody Fryman one-hitter. After both Blue losses, the Giants responded by winning the next two games.

"I keep telling 'em that if you're going to the World Series, you can't let one licking get you down," Blue said. "You gotta make them prove it to you again and again and again."

The Giants, who have won 35 one-run games, have mastered that lesson. "We're all hungry, just like Vida," said Evans. "I've never been in a pennant race before in my life. I've played in more games in the last month that I'll remember all my life that I did in the eight seasons before this put together."

Ironically, Blue - the Giants' clutch man - was always the weakest pressure link in the 1971-75 Oakland powerhouse. In 17 playoff and World Series games, Blue had one victory and five losses with a 4.30 ERA.

Part of Blue's determined quest is to get back into postseason play and vindicate his record under pressure.

So far, Blue's ferocity in Giant crisis games has earned him a new nickname - "Sick 'em."

"Sure," explained Madlock. "Vida is our big dog. When he goes out to the mound, we just start yelling 'Sic 'em, Blue.'"