Vida Blue was ahead of his time, or else hopelessly behind, depending on your view of the naming-rights debate currently swirling around Wrigley Field.
The promising young left-hander was just starting to make his mark in Oakland in 1971 when then-A's owner Charlie O. Finley called Blue into his office and offered him $2,000 to change his first name to ``True.''
Blue, who was making all of $13,000 at the time, considered it for a moment. Vida, which means to ``life'' in Spanish, was his father's name and the son felt he was honoring the old man every time it turned up in a newspaper. You can't buy that kind of integrity.
``If you like the name so much,'' Blue said finally, ``why don't you call yourself True O. Finley?''
It marked perhaps the first, and certainly one of the few times since, that someone in sports turned down cold cash rather than change a name. Chicago mayor Richard Daley declared in December 2001 - just months after the tragic events of Sept. 11 - that a renovated Soldier Field would never be called anything else. Just last week, Yankees president Randy Levine vowed the same.
``The Yankee Stadium name is sacred,'' he said about the new ballpark scheduled to open next year just north of the old one. ``Yankee Stadium is the cathedral of baseball and would be unseemly for a naming rights deal.''
Most people know now that Wrigley Field was originally named Weeghman Park, after one of the partners in the Federal League startup franchise, then Cubs Park after ``Lucky Charlie'' Weeghman paid $500,000 for the city's National League franchise and merged it with his Chicago Whales. The present names dates to 1927, by which time chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. had wrested complete control of the club and couldn't resist the commercial tie-in.
Current Cubs owner and billionaire real-estate mogul Sam Zell was blissfully unaware, by most accounts, of both that history and the money thrown around in the naming-rights game until he learned the Mets will collect $20 million a year for 20 years to call their new ballpark Citi Field. He apparently didn't anticipate the firestorm that followed his proposal to slap a new name on Wrigley, nor does he care.
``Excuse me for being sarcastic,'' he said during a recent CNBC interview, ``but the idea of a debate occurring over what I should do with my asset leaves me somewhat questioning the integrity of the debate. ...
``There's a lot of people who would like to buy the Cubs and would like to buy the Cubs under their terms and conditions and, unfortunately,'' he added, ``have to deal with me.''
He's right, of course, but a smart businessman should also know there are times when being right isn't worth much. Any company dumb enough to fork over good money to slap its name on the park wouldn't find the confines friendly at the moment and historically speaking, naming rights have been a lousy investment - not to mention bad karma.
The current trend got its start in 1973, when the NFL's Buffalo Bills took $1.5 million from Rich Foods to slap the company's name on their stadium for 25 years. By the turn of the century, there were more than five dozen major league stadiums sporting the names of companies who pledged a collective $3.4 billion.
If the past is prologue, all the people cursing at the idea of corporate names covering the marquees of their beloved ballparks can save their breath. Precious few have staying power.
The boom that provided much of the cash financing for those naming deals in the peak years of the 1990s went bust. By late 2001, an informal survey found half of the publicly traded companies that paid for naming rights had lost a quarter of their stock value. A second survey done around the same time found the stock of all the companies still playing the name game was down by an average of 20 percent - meaning they were out a collective $265 billion or so. A few - led by Enron Corp., which pledged $100 million for 30 years to cover the Houston Astros' downtown ballpark - slid all the way down the drain. The names of just about every other stadium have changed often enough that even the success stories are blurred. What's currently the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston has had 34 different names since plans were announced to replace the original Garden some 15 years ago, in part because the naming-rights were auctioned off daily for a while on eBay.
For two days, in fact, the official name of the joint was ``Yankees Suck Center,'' which, if nothing else, is easy to remember.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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