Sutcliffe weighs future, but now, he carries the load Free agency possible for Orioles workhorse

September 18, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

Rick Sutcliffe is an emotional guy. He never has denied that or tried to hide it. He has a temper hot enough to leave a manager's office in ruins and a Teddy-bear soft side that can leave you wondering how he ever could throw a baseball in anger.

It was the soft side that prompted Sutcliffe to throw logic to the wind and approach the Orioles about a contract extension in July.

He knew that the Cal Ripken contract negotiations were an organizational preoccupation. He knew that the club was negotiating with No. 1 draft choice Jeffrey Hammonds. He knew that the November expansion draft was another complicating factor. He knew that his physical problems in 1990 and '91 left the club with reasons to wait until the end of the year to consider re-signing him.

So why did he even go to the trouble of putting the club in a position where there could be the appearance of rejection?

He was homesick.

Sutcliffe had left his wife, Robin, and his 9-year-old daughter, Shelby, at home in Lee's Summit, Mo., for much of the first half of the season. He had bought a house in Chicago when he was with the Cubs, but he was hesitant to make any permanent arrangement in Baltimore without a commitment for the 1993 season. That's why he summoned agent Barry Axelrod to Baltimore in early July to inquire about an extension.

"The reason Barry came here in July is because this was killing me," Sutcliffe said. "If we could have done something in July, we would have bought a house and started Shelby in school here. I was upset because I didn't get a chance to do that. That is where my disappointment came from. It wasn't from rejection. I just thought it would have been nice, but it didn't work out."

There apparently were no hard feelings. The Orioles say that re-signing Sutcliffe will be a priority after the season ends. Axelrod says that the discussions in July were amiable and that he came away from them confident that the Orioles would make every effort to bring Sutcliffe back in 1993.

But Sutcliffe has left room to wonder if he will be back. He no longer is clamoring for a new contract. He said Wednesday night that he isn't even sure he would accept one if it were offered. He is only sure of one thing.

"I'm not going to be away from Robin and Shelby next year the way I have been this year," Sutcliffe said. "Once the season is over with, I'm going to try and solve that problem as soon as I can. If it means filing for free agency, I want to get it over with as soon as I can. It's not going to be an extended free agency."

That may not be as ominous as it sounds. Filing for free agency is a routine procedure that protects a player's leverage at the bargaining table and does not necessarily reflect a lack of desire to remain with the original club.

"I hope no one has gotten the impression that there is a rift between Rick and the club, because that absolutely is not the case," club president Larry Lucchino said. "We have nothing but the highest regard for Rick and all that he has done for the Orioles this year.

"When the appropriate time comes, we are very eager to talk about next year."

Both sides agree that now is not that time. The Orioles are embroiled in a pennant race that has heated up over the past few days. The club just swept the Kansas City Royals to gain two games on the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, and Sutcliffe is set to come back on three days' rest tonight to pitch the opener of a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

"I don't want to negotiate with them right now," Axelrod said. "I want all of Rick's energies focused on doing what he needs to be doing on the field."

That never has been a problem for Sutcliffe, whose performance in August and September has kept the Orioles in the race. He is 6-1 (and the club is 8-1 in his games) since he broke out of a July slump that briefly dropped his record below .500.

He has pitched so well that manager Johnny Oates altered the Orioles rotation to get Sutcliffe five starts over the final 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season instead of four. That extra start will give him an outside chance at a 20-win season.

The season already has been a success, but a few more victories could make the Orioles regret that they didn't get Sutcliffe's signature on a new contract when he was so willing to sign two months ago. The price is only going to get higher.

It probably would have been to the club's advantage to sign Sutcliffe to a one-year extension in July, but that's easy to say now. There were still doubts about his durability then. As it turned out, he has been durable enough to lead the league in starts and rank among the top AL pitchers with 229 innings.

Should the club sign him now, or can it afford to wait?

Good question. The upcoming expansion draft could put a freeze on free-agent signings, because many teams will be unwilling to use up valuable spaces on their protected lists to add free-agent players who just as easily might be signed later.

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