When the Orioles signed Rick Sutcliffe as a free agent last winter, there were more than a few skeptics around Baltimore wondering whether the 36-year-old pitcher with a recent history of shoulder problems would turn out to be another Dwight Evans.
Good guy to have around but a player who long since has seen the top of the hill. Eight years removed from his Cy Young season with the Chicago Cubs, three years past his last injury-free season, Sutcliffe was brought to Baltimore more to be a role model for the team's young pitchers than to be the ace of the staff.
"That's probably 50 percent of the reason John wanted me here in the first place," Sutcliffe said yesterday. "I don't think John knew what to expect. Maybe he felt I would win eight to 10 games. I told him when I got here that I didn't know what to expect myself. I wasn't sure."
More than any other Oriole except maybe Brady Anderson, Sutcliffe has exceeded expectations. His positive influence has extended far beyond the clubhouse and dugout. It is evidenced in the maturation of the pitching staff and, even more significantly, in the resurrection of Sutcliffe's career.
Going into his start tonight against the New York Yankees, Sutcliffe leads the Orioles in victories (15), starts (31) and, incredibly, innings pitched (214). After making 23 starts and pitching 121 innings in the majors since arthroscopic surgery in May 1990, Sutcliffe hasn't missed a start this season. He is on line to better a personal best for innings pitched (243 1/3 in 1983).
"If he was healthy, I knew he could help us," Oates said last night. "I knew how tough he was, how much a gamer he was and, when it comes to crunch time, how much of a cruncher he was."
Not that Sutcliffe's first season in Baltimore hasn't been without difficulty. There was the 0-for-July streak that sent Sutcliffe's record below .500 with five straight losses, a stretch that was accompanied by its share of whispers around Camden Yards.
Even Sutcliffe's recent five-game winning streak, which pushed his record to 15-11, has been tempered by a tremendous emotional strain. It came during a time when Sutcliffe lost his mother, Louise Bloss, after a lengthy bout with cancer. More recently, his wife and daughter moved back to the family's home near Kansas City, Mo., for the start of school.
Asked how he has kept his focus, especially after his mother's death, Sutcliffe said: "I don't know if I'm doing such a great job. July was a tough month, but July was nothing compared to what I've gone through lately. At the same time, it's my job, and I'm getting paid a lot of money to go out and perform. The excitement of a pennant race is what it's all about in baseball."
Though much was made about his performance two days after && his mother's death, an eight-inning, four-hit, one-run victory over the California Angels, Sutcliffe said it wasn't anything special. Publicly, Sutcliffe was a 6-foot-7 tower of strength. Privately, he was a wreck.
"I didn't want to come back [from Kansas City]. I wanted to stay withmy family," said Sutcliffe, who took the ball from that win and buried it with his mother. "But it was the way my mom raised me."
Said catcher Chris Hoiles: "To go out and do what he did made me think what I would do under the same conditions. I don't think I could have done that. I have no idea how he did that. But he's done so much for us all year. He's gone out and led by example. He's won some big games. He's always there if you have a problem."
Sutcliffe, who has been known to come back from the training room after he gets iced to lead cheers on the bench, seems uncomfortable talking about his role on the team, especially for the influence he has had over the twentysomething starting rotation.
"I try to help them as a teammate and a friend," he said. "I don't want any credit for their success."
Nor is he interested in winning awards, especially Comeback Player of the Year. Sutcliffe is not one to look back.
"I don't want to prove the Cubs wrong; I want to prove the Orioles right," he said.