Sutcliffe could cure absence of presence

MIKE LITTWIN

March 15, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As a player, it's fair to say John Oates blended in. Actually, he was usually so deep into the woodwork, you couldn't reach him with a chain saw.

It can happen when you play 10 years in the big leagues, and in half of them, you don't get 100 at-bats. But that's not to say Oates can't appreciate charisma.

"I played with guys who had personality," Oates was saying the other day. "I was on the Phillies with Dick Allen, on the Dodgers with Garvey and Reggie Smith and those guys, and on the Yankees with Reggie and Nettles and Guidry.

"I was on teams where the guys in the other dugout would watch us take batting practice. That's the kind of players we had. When I was on the Yankees, you could see them looking into our dugout, wondering who was fighting who that day."

You could almost hear Oates sigh. Clearly he'd love to have a little more personality on this team. It's one of the reasons the Orioles would keep Randy Milligan. He may not have an obvious position afield, but the Moose is one guy whose presence makes the clubhouse chemistry work.

Bill Ripken adds goofiness. Rick Dempsey, if he makes the team, nTC adds poetry. Mike Flanagan has wit. Ben McDonald has his squirt gun.

And then there's Rick Sutcliffe.

"Rick has the kind of personality that can make a real difference to a team," Oates said.

The Orioles don't have a leader. Cal Ripken is your definite lead-by-example type, period. He's not the kind you ask to intercede for you with the manager, and he isn't the kind to call a clubhouse meeting. He just goes about the 162-game business of winning MVP awards.

Glenn Davis is the strong, silent type. Davis and Ripken are the only Orioles who meet the leadership prerequisite: You've got be a star. The last Orioles leader was Eddie Murray, whom you may remember.

"You don't have to have a team leader to win," said Frank Robinson, who was once one himself, "but it helps. When I was in San Francisco, I had Reggie Smith and Joe Morgan -- I called them sandpaper and silk. Reggie was the guy who kicked a little behind and Joe was the player who smoothed out players' feelings. They were great for a manager."

Leaders should be everyday players, but you take what you can get. Sutcliffe can be a presence. You don't announce yourself as one; you either emerge or you don't. Sutcliffe knows what it takes.

"In '84," said Sutcliffe, recalling his time with the division-winning Cubs, "we had Gary Matthews. Our magic number was three or four, and we had lost three games in a row. We weren't panicking, but we were concerned. We had a doubleheader that day against St. Louis, and Gary walks into the clubhouse and announces, 'Boys, don't worry, Sarge is in charge today.'

"Everybody goes around the clubhouse saying, 'Boys, don't worry, Sarge is in charge today.' It loosened everyone up. And then he went out and hit a two-run homer in the first inning of the first game and a three-run double in the first inning of the second game, and we swept the doubleheader. I won the next night, and we clinched the division. That's a presence."

Sutcliffe played a role, too. In the Cubs clubhouse, the players sat on director's chairs. Every so often, Sutcliffe and Ryne Sandberg would go around removing a crucial wooden slat that would result in the chair's collapse.

"We'd get Matthews," said Sutcliffe, "who'd always come in, light a cigarette, get a cup of coffee and sit down to read his mail. The chair collapses, the coffee goes everywhere, somebody gets burnt by the cigarette and everyone laughs."

Sutcliffe brings something else, too. They talk about his adding experience to a young club, how he can be a second pitching coach. But what he also brings is a sure sense that each game he pitches is the most important of the year.

"Don Drysdale taught me that," Sutcliffe said. "When I was traded to Cleveland, Don called me up and told me there were going to be days when the team is 20 games out in August that guys are going to let down.

"So I got into this routine, same thing every day. Everyone knew not to talk to me on the day I pitched. I'd come in mad. Even now, my wife will burn my toast the day I pitch, just to get me mad. I used to like to listen to country music, and one day in Cleveland this guy changed the channel on the radio. I grabbed him, threw him down into my locker, and they had to pull me off him. If you believe that when you pitch it's an important day to you, it's going to be important to everyone else."

I think Sutcliffe is the key to the season. If Sutcliffe can return to something like his old form, the Orioles might actually put together a winning rotation. Almost as important would be a winning presence.

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