ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Rick Sutcliffe raises hell, be it in the heat of competition or the spirit of camaraderie. Manager John Oates wants him to be the Orioles' Jack Morris. Sutcliffe is just as intense a leader, and a ringleader as well.
At his fiery best, Sutcliffe once raced out of his clubhouse to join a bench-clearing brawl, forgetting that he was in his underwear, wearing shower shoes and sporting an icebag on his shoulder.
At his most goofy, he greeted his new Orioles teammates in a real-life game of bumper cars, playfully rear-ending them as they drove from the team hotel to the club's training camp in Sarasota.
"You can go out and look at all the rental cars -- all of 'em got dents in the rear end," Sutcliffe says with pride. "I got just about everyone. I've got to change rental-car companies every year."
Fierce competitor. Clubhouse leader. Practical joker. Sutcliffe, 35, fits all three descriptions. The first two made him the obvious choice to be the Orioles' Opening Day starter. The third is simply another good reason to have him around.
Pray he stays healthy.
Sutcliffe means that much.
He started five straight openers for the Chicago Cubs from 1985-89, and the first night game at Wrigley Field so he's familiar with the circus atmosphere that will accompany the first official game at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Yet that's not the only reason Oates named him his Opening Day pitcher yesterday.
The idea is for Sutcliffe to become the rock of this staff. "He's a good example for the kids," bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks was saying at 8:30 one morning as Sutcliffe jogged in solitude, "if the kids get out here early enough to see him work."
How ironic that the Orioles finally have a pitcher who embodies Frank Robinson's unyielding approach now that Robinson is no longer manager. You watch: Teams will think twice about throwing at Orioles hitters now. Sutcliffe retaliates, and teammates feel obligated to do the same.
Oates calls Sutcliffe a "wonderful husband and wonderful father," but Sutcliffe admits he wouldn't spare his wife Robin if she was crowding home plate. "If I had to knock her down, I'd knock her down," he says, shrugging. "She knows that."
Sutcliffe and Oates were Los Angeles Dodgers teammates the night the 6-foot-7 righthander stormed the field in his shower shoes in 1979. "I didn't claim to be real bright back then," Sutcliffe says, but he escaped without getting spiked.
Would he do it again?
In fact, he went one better the next year in Houston, entering a brawl in street clothes. Sutcliffe was walking through the stands with the Dodgers' traveling secretary, preparing to fly ahead because he was pitching the next day.
Suddenly Ken Brett drilled Houston's Enos Cabell, and Cabell charged the mound. "I jumped over the rail," Sutcliffe recalls. "I got someone locked up, and then security grabbed me. They thought I was a fan. They were going to arrest me."
This is a guy who once grabbed Tommy Lasorda and trashed his office in a dispute over the way he was being used. But this also is a guy who loves nothing better than a clever clubhouse gag. "He's two people in one," Oates says, sighing.
Earlier this spring, Sutcliffe organized a group of players to wave goodbye to Mike Flanagan as the veteran lefthander boarded the team bus for a road game. Oates warned Sutcliffe not to do it, or else he'd make every trip the rest of the spring.
That ended that, but Oates delights in Sutcliffe's other antics. Who else but Sutcliffe would call out "fastball" and throw a changeup to gain an extra edge in a pitchers' squad game? Who else would interrupt his outfield running to sneak up on Joe Orsulak and bark at him during a pitching change?
Poor Sutcliffe can't help himself.
"How do you think your child would turn out if he started out with Jerry Reuss, Don Stanhouse and Jay Johnstone?" he asks, referring to three of his wacky teammates with the Dodgers. "Then I went to Cleveland and had [Bert] Blyleven. I didn't have a chance."
That explains the ringleader.
Now how about the leader?
"Sometimes you can't go through the motions to get the job done. Sometimes you've got to fight for it," he says. "That's how important winning is. If I've got to fight to win a game, it's worth it to me. It doesn't matter what the reason."
He isn't smiling now.
"Don't forget," Rick Sutcliffe says. "I'm here to pitch."