Sutcliffe represents choice of experience

JOHN EISENBERG B

March 31, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- John Oates emerged from a meeting with Roland Hemond yesterday, walked across the clubhouse and tapped Mike Mussina on the glove. They disappeared into the manager's office.

A dozen eyebrows went up. Players, coaches and reporters looked at each other and smiled, thinking the same thought. Could it be? No way, right? Nawwwww.

Oates had said he would announce the Opening Day starter, along with the rotation for the first few games. Everyone figured Rick Sutcliffe would be the nominee. But what was Oates doing leading Mussina into his office with a sly grin?

It wouldn't be an awful choice -- Mussina may be the club's best pitcher. But it would go against everything Oates had been saying, that he wanted to protect Mussina and Ben McDonald from the suffocating pressure that, Oates felt, had stunted McDonald's growth.

When Mussina came out of the office, Oates stood at the threshold searching the room, then saw McDonald coming out of the shower. "Mac," Oates snapped, and they disappeared into the office. Suddenly, it was clear what was up.

Oates was just telling all the pitchers what he had decided. That Bob Milacki would start the second game, McDonald the third, Mussina the fourth. And that Sutcliffe would indeed throw the first pitch at the new ballpark. Sutcliffe had already been told.

It is the right choice. The obvious choice. The decision was a no-brainer, but it still had to be made. It wasn't blown.

No one knows if Sutcliffe will pitch well Monday, but he is the right man for the assignment. For a lot of reasons.

Because he is a 35-year-old 139-game winner who won't get so nervous he can't think. Because it does shield Mussina and TC McDonald from the pressure. And mostly because it is a big game, and Sutcliffe is a big-game pitcher.

Some athletes shy from their crucible. They don't want to pitch the ninth inning, take the last shot, lead a last-second drive downfield. Then there are Rick Sutcliffes, who don't just accept such moments, but welcome them.

Here is a pitcher who threw the division-clincher for the Cubs in 1984. A pitcher who started five straight Opening Days for the Cubs, becoming the first since Grover Cleveland Alexander to win two in a row.

A pitcher Cubs manager Don Zimmer selected to start the first Wrigley Field night game, a civic black-tie event not unlike the upcoming Camden Yards opening.

Even if Sutcliffe and his rehabbed right shoulder prove to be a bust this season -- he looks healthy -- he will have contributed this moment to the cause. Don't underestimate it.

Being the Opening Day starter is a cardboard honor that mostly disintegrates when the game ends. But there is a message in the symbolism, and you have to handle it with care. Unlike last season.

The message is you are the main man. The carrier of the load. Frank Robinson said McDonald was his Opening Day starter almost as soon as camp opened last year. It was a mistake. McDonald wound up not starting because of an injury, but the message lingered. It was destructive.

He just wasn't ready to be the big-game pitcher. He hadn't pitched any big games.

The club signed Sutcliffe for this very reason. Not just so he could protect McDonald and Mussina from the pressure, but so they could learn a thousand lessons. Lessons Sutcliffe will teach simply by being there. How things are done. How to approach a big game. How to handle it.

Sutcliffe, who is big buddies with Bruce Springsteen and has sung onstage with Huey Lewis, will not be awed by Monday's circumstances. Not one bit. Mussina and McDonald will benefit from seeing him in that frenetic setting. Seeing him handle it. And so the education begins.

Whether he pitches well -- all season, not just Monday -- is another matter, of course. You can never predict these things. But the Orioles are plainly encouraged by Sutcliffe's spring.

He has not been the best starter in camp. Mussina and McDonald have been better. Jose Mesa, with 20 scoreless innings, has looked like Cy Young. But the Orioles got what they wanted from Sutcliffe. No shoulder pain.

"He looks terrific," said Oates, who caught Sutcliffe with the Dodgers in 1979. "He is throwing as well and as hard as I've seen in a long time."

Sutcliffe does look like he might help this year, and give the Orioles credit. They went cheap again when they signed him, but they were smart about it this time. They found a pitcher who was as effective as any in baseball last September, who looked ready to make a comeback, carry a load again. The load turns real Monday, and says Sutcliffe, in mind if not out loud: "Bring it on." Which is precisely the point.

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