Orioles' changing face With bearded Sutcliffe, Orioles staff may not be as razor sharp

December 20, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

Rick Sutcliffe spent less than 10 hours in Baltimore yesterday, but he managed to achieve a couple of firsts as an Oriole.

The veteran righthander met club officials at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he agreed to terms of an incentive-filled contract that is guaranteed for $1.2 million.

"They wined and dined us -- we had sandwiches off one of the trucks down there," said agent Barry Axelrod, who handled the negotiations.

After his tour, Sutcliffe became the first player ever to sign a contract at the new park. "I think we got the deal done in a meat locker," said Axelrod, referring to the concession storage area that served as the conference room.

Sutcliffe labeled the Orioles' new home as "gorgeous," and expressed to general manager Roland Hemond a desire to pitch the first game. "Well, you've already become the first player to sign here," the GM replied, "so that might as well be your next goal."

Later, at an afternoon news conference, Hemond was asked about the neatly trimmed red beard that is a Sutcliffe trademark. The Orioles, whose dress code has been gradually altered over the years, have never had a bearded player.

Hemond was asked if the subject came up during negotiations.

"You're looking at the Orioles' first bearded player," Hemond said with a laugh. "I asked John [manager John Oates] about it and he had no objection."

Sutcliffe's appearance most likely will have an influence on other players who have refrained from excessive facial hair during the season, most notably reliever Gregg Olson. And that's fine with Oates.

"As long as it's neatly trimmed, I don't see any difference between a beard and a mustache," said Oates, who has hair covering his own upper lip. "I'd like to see Olson grow a beard -- I think it would make him look meaner. He looks like a choir boy out there now."

Axelrod did admit that the subject of Sutcliffe's beard came up in conversation with club president Larry Lucchino.

"I told Larry, 'You don't want to make him shave off that beard and see what's under there,' " said Axelrod.

That, of course, just provided a note of humor as to why the Orioles acquired Sutcliffe. It wasn't to change the club's facial appearance.

"If my arm hurt, I wouldn't be here right now," said Sutcliffe, who missed most of the last two seasons with the Chicago Cubs following shoulder surgery in 1990, when he was 0-2 with a 5.91 earned run average in five starts.

He was 6-5 with a 4.10 ERA run average in 1991 (18 starts).

"Last year ended too soon for me. I threw good my last nine or 10 starts," said Sutcliffe, who said he felt capable of pitching more than 200 innings next year.

"I'm not going to stand here and guarantee that he can do that," said Oates, who caught most of the righthander's games in 1979, when Sutcliffe was the National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers. "But all of our reports on him at the end of the year were good."

After returning from the disabled list -- and arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder -- Aug. 6, Sutcliffe, 35, went 4-1 with a 2.33 earned run average. In one four-game stretch he allowed only four earned runs (19 hits) in 29 1/3 innings. Those numbers, and the assurance that he was healthy, encouraged the Orioles to think he might be capable of regaining his form of 1989 (16-11, 3.66).

Knowing Sutcliffe's competitive nature was one reason that spurred Oates' interest. The manager also admits it was one reason why he wondered if he wanted to pursue his former teammate.

"The first thing I thought was whether or not I wanted to put myself through this," said Oates, "because Rick never. . . never. . . likes to come out of a game. When we talked, all he said was, 'You're the boss.' And I told him, 'I know.' "

When the subject of the Orioles' ample bullpen came up, Sutcliffe said he was told of its effectiveness, but that was neither a factor, nor a concern, in his decision.

"I can't do my job if I'm thinking about those guys down there," he said.

"To me the biggest thrill in baseball is being on the field for the final out. I don't like everybody running out and shaking somebody else's hand after I've been out there for over two hours.

"But," he said with a laugh, "it's nice to know they're there, if you need them. I've seen Olson's curveball -- I might try to find out how he throws that thing."

The addition of Sutcliffe makes what had been a foregone conclusion a virtual certainty. It assures that Oates will open the 1992 season with an all-righthanded starting rotation. It also means that Jose Mesa, who opened last year as the No. 2 starter, most likely will have to compete for a job as a long reliever.

The Orioles did not have a viable lefthanded candidate for the rotation, but until Sutcliffe signed, they at least had an opening. The fact that the new stadium, with an inviting rightfield wall, appears to favor lefthanded hitters raises some concern about the lack of a lefthanded starter -- but not with Oates.

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