Orioles should freeze Sutcliffe with another icebox signing

Ken Rosenthal

September 15, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

They signed him in a giant refrigerator at Camden Yards, a place where beer kegs are now stacked to the ceiling. If the Orioles are smart, they'll re-enact the scene the day after the expansion draft, and get Rick Sutcliffe under contract again.

On second thought, maybe they should clear out those kegs immediately: Sutcliffe is eligible for free agency, and the Orioles will risk losing him in November if they postpone matters to keep an extra spot on their 15-man protected list.

Lose Sutcliffe?

Perish the thought.

Last night, he retired his first 14 hitters and took a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning of a 2-1 victory over Kansas City. He left because of a mild knee strain, but summoned manager Johnny Oates to the trainer's room immediately afterward to announce he would make his next start.

He could pitch five of the final 19 games if the Orioles remain in contention. That would give him a chance at 20 wins, not that Sutcliffe cares. He's 6-1 with a 2.82 ERA in his nine starts since Aug. 4. The only thing that interests him is that the Orioles have won eight of those nine games.

Did anyone say Jack Morris? That was the Orioles' idea when they signed Sutcliffe on a cold day last December, with snow on the ground and Oriole Park still under construction. Yet no one seriously expected he'd become a 16-game winner or threaten to exceed his career-high of 242 innings at the age of 36.

There are a dozen reasons the Orioles must keep Sutcliffe, but here is the most compelling: He's only a year younger than Morris, but because of his past injuries, has pitched nearly 1,000 fewer innings. His agent, Barry Axelrod, said he has the equivalent of a 32-year-old arm.

Sutcliffe is so sound, he has thrown a major-league high 3,607 pitches -- and soon might start working on three days' rest. On top of that, he's such a vocal leader, it can be argued that he's the most valuable Oriole, even ahead of Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson.

"I can't even explain how much he's meant," pitcher Ben McDonald said last night. "I still have a lot to learn, but I think he's going to speed up the learning process by a year, maybe more than that. God, I hope he's back next year."

McDonald probably will get his wish, but it's a sticky question. As a free agent, Sutcliffe could sign with any club, but wouldn't be eligible for the Nov. 17 expansion draft. Ideally, the Orioles would prefer to sign him after that date, and protect a younger player instead.

It's possible Sutcliffe could get a better offer in the interim, but his new club would face the same problem. Axelrod said Sutcliffe will demand a no-trade clause in his next contract. The draft rules state that such players must be protected, which is why the Orioles are stuck with Glenn Davis.

The solution, of course, is for the Orioles to reach a confidential agreement with Sutcliffe before he declares free agency, then announce his signing after the draft. Sounds unseemly, but such backroom maneuvering is widely expected by clubs anxious to retain their free agents.

Axelrod said he asked the Orioles about Sutcliffe shortly before the All-Star break, and received assurance that the club wanted him back. Sutcliffe wanted to sign right then, but the Orioles were,from 1Cnegotiating with Cal Ripken and No. 1 draft pick Jeffrey Hammonds, and fretting over the expansion draft.

"It upset me because I wanted to get it over with," Sutcliffe said. "But I understand. I told Barry at that time, 'We'll just wait, I guess.' There will be no discussions now. I have one thing on my mind. My family's gone [back to Kansas City for his 9-year-old daughter Shelby to attend school]. All I can think about is this pennant."

Whatever happens, it won't be nearly as bizarre as the refrigerator escapade last December. Sutcliffe and Axelrod were touring the new ballpark that day, and they simply decided to hammer out a deal with the Orioles right there and then.

Axelrod said the refrigerator at that time was a construction office, complete with blueprints on the walls. He and Sutcliffe sat folding chairs with Oates, general manager Roland Hemond and club president Larry Lucchino. They spread out the paperwork on an old table.

It was quite a change for Sutcliffe, who still recalls Royals owner Ewing Kauffman wining and dining him at the exclusive Kansas City Club when he was a free agent in 1984. The mayor of Kansas City made an appearance. Then the governor of Missouri stopped by.

"If President Reagan walks in, that's it, we'll sign," Axelrod told Kauffman.

"If you're serious, he will be here," Kauffman replied.

Reagan didn't show, Sutcliffe re-signed with the Chicago Cubs and seven years later he never even got to a restaurant with the Orioles. Lucchino bought lunch for five from a truck at the construction site. The entire bill, he joked, was $12. Hemond remembered the turkey sandwich going for $2.90.

Axelrod, the agent from San Diego, recalls only that it was freezing -- "Johnny [Oates] felt sorry for me. He threw his scarf around my neck." Ironically, the refrigerator was the only place with heat. And it was there that the Orioles' 1992 season caught fire.

Sutcliffe signed for a $1.2 million base salary, but after reaching virtually every incentive, he will earn more than $2 million. The Orioles can use that as a starting point for next season, then re-load the incentives to make the package worth $3 million.

Clear out the kegs.

Open the refrigerator.

And lock up Sutcliffe again.

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