If he fails on mound, Sutcliffe still winner

MIKE LITTWIN

December 20, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Rick Sutcliffe may or may not be the stud pitcher the Orioles desperately need. At age 35, he's obviously a gamble. A former Rookie of the Year and a former Cy Young Award winner, Sutcliffe was more recently a surgery patient who was 7-6 over the past two seasons (but 4-1, with a 2.33 ERA, after Aug. 6) while trying to put his shoulder and career back together.

The pain is gone, he says. And he hopes the thrill is back. In which case, the Orioles would have themselves a steal.

But that isn't what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about Rick Sutcliffe, the person.

You are going to love him. I promise. He's a good guy's good guy, and, in fact, he has to go back to Chicago -- where he pitched the past 7 1/2 years -- to pick up another good-guy award. He has won a lot more of those than he ever will Cy Youngs.

When the Orioles were trying to sell him on Baltimore, they took him to Camden Yards. And while the money men were talking finance, he was busy both admiring the view and picking out 50 seats he plans to buy each game for underprivileged children.

"I think it's the greatest gift I have as a baseball player -- to be able to touch people and make a small difference in their lives," he was saying yesterday as the Orioles introduced him at a news conference.

If that sounds a bit like your standard, self-serving, gosh-aren't-I-wonderful sanctimony, then you don't know Sutcliffe. Let's just say he is not exactly sanctimonious. Not when you're the guy who may be most famous for tearing up Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda's office while picking Lasorda up from the floor and threatening to do him serious harm. Sutcliffe is a fighter -- in the Jack Morris style, on the mound anyway -- who, along with his wife, Robin, just can't help but get involved with people.

Since 1985, he has donated $100,000 of his salary each year to the Sutcliffe Foundation. He buys the 50 tickets. He offers 10 scholarships. He visits hospitals, and, through his visits, he sets up what he calls an IOU program. What he does is promise kids that, as soon as they get out of the hospital, he will owe them a trip to the ballpark. He gives them his home number -- yes, he does -- so they can call him for the tickets. The idea is to attempt to give sick kids incentive to try to get well.

"A very wise man once told me that five minutes of my time is worth five thousand of my dollars," Sutcliffe said. "Anybody can sit back and write a check. To me, it's a thrill to go in there and see these kids."

Certainly, he won't have any problem finding Baltimore-area kids in need. He is one of three Orioles -- along with Glenn Davis and Cal Ripken -- who buy seats for underprivileged kids, meaning, in the worst-case scenario, the Orioles will get at least some of their money's worth.

Sutcliffe said he came to Baltimore because he felt wanted here. A lot of clubs made him similar offers -- a $1.2 million base, with generous incentives that could take him to more than $2 million -- but he wanted to be reunited with John Oates, his old catcher and coach. And he felt the Orioles made the most persuasive pitch.

"It's not the money," he said, and you try not to gasp. "I've made $15 million playing this game. I think I love the game more than I ever have. It's just fun to pitch without any pain."

A few times, he very nearly gave up the game because, whenever he threw, it felt like an ice pick was being driven through his shoulder. That's another kind of incentive. But if he's well, and if he pitches as he did at the end of last season, he could help the Orioles. He says he can pitch 200-plus innings. That's a wonderful thought. But that would be only a minor wonder. Try on this one, as Sutcliffe tells the story:

"I went to a hospital last year, giving out the normal pictures and T-shirts. When I came to this one kid, I could see he didn't want me around. I couldn't remember that happening before in 10 years of going to hospitals. And his mother, she was rude to me. I left a picture and T-shirt and walked out feeling really strange.

"And then I got a letter from the mother. It was tear-stained, and she apologized for the stains. She said her son had told her he was glad he had leukemia, because if he didn't have the disease, he never would have gotten to meet Rick Sutcliffe. He just didn't know how to show his excitement."

About eight weeks later, Sutcliffe said, he got another letter from the mother. The child had died.

Sutcliffe might win 20 games this year. He might win just two games. But, whatever happens, you can be sure he'll make a difference.

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