Homesick Sutcliffe growing weary of waiting game

September 28, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Yesterday's 6-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox officially gave the Orioles permission to start doing what most of the 26 other major-league teams started doing weeks ago -- namely, looking to next year.

The looking-ahead process began for starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, too, but for different reasons than, say, fellow starters Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

While Mussina and McDonald, two of the most promising young pitchers in the American League, are certain to be in Orioles uniforms next season, Sutcliffe does not know where he will be.

More importantly, he does not know where he and his wife, Robin, will live, or where his 9-year-old daughter, Shelby, will attend school next year, and those facts concern Sutcliffe deeply.

"I'm not looking for anybody's sympathy, but as a father I have a family to look out for," Sutcliffe said yesterday, after taking the loss that dropped his record to 16-15.

The 1992 season has represented the best and worst of times for Sutcliffe.

His triumphs, including a brilliant Opening Day shutout to christen Oriole Park, have been mostly spectacular, and indicate that the arm troubles that plagued him in his final two seasons with the Chicago Cubs have passed.

But the low points, including the death of his mother in August, have cut deeply and have been magnified because he has not had his family here to share them.

"On the field, it's been a great summer. Off the field, it's been, hands down, without a doubt, the worst," said Sutcliffe.

Yesterday's loss, in which Sutcliffe left in the third inning after surrendering eight hits and five runs, was just the latest in a series of recent poor starts.

Sutcliffe has allowed 19 hits and 16 runs -- 15 of them earned -- in his last 8 1/3 innings for an ERA of 16.20. He has dropped four of his last five starts, after posting a 4-0 mark in August with a 1.60 ERA.

"I flat stunk. I should have used all my pitches [yesterday]. I just kept shaking off everything he [catcher Jeff Tackett] put down but the one [the fastball], and my one wasn't working," said Sutcliffe.

Manager Johnny Oates said, "It didn't appear like he had his good stuff today. He was throwing the ball on the same plane. Today, it was evident he didn't have life on the ball."

It quickly became clear as Sutcliffe sat in front of his clubhouse stall yesterday that there was a great deal on his mind besides his recent mound performances.

Of chief importance is his contract status for next season. Sutcliffe signed a one-year contract last winter with the Orioles that called for a base salary of $1.2 million, but was filled with incentive clauses that will likely bring him more than $2 million.

Even with the downturns in July and this month, in which Sutcliffe won one of nine decisions, he has been a godsend to the previously beleaguered pitching staff, throwing more pitches than all but two other pitchers in baseball.

And there is no question that Oates, who pushed to have the Orioles sign Sutcliffe, would like to have the veteran back next season, as much for his guile and leadership as for his ability.

But the matter is not quite that simple. The Nov. 17 expansion draft places the club and Sutcliffe in a precarious position.

The Orioles, like the other 25 major-league teams, must designate 15 players to be protected in the first round of the draft, and may add three additional players in each of the two subsequent rounds.

While the club must protect players who have no-trade clauses in their contracts, such as Glenn Davis and Cal Ripken, it does not have to protect free agents like Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe said his agent, Barry Axelrod, attempted to meet with club officials in July to hammer out a deal, but was told that the Orioles wanted to wait until after the season.

"I totally understand them and their decision. I wasn't upset at the time. I'm not now," said Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe understands that the Orioles are gambling that other clubs will leave him alone, and protect a younger player with his spot.

That's all well and good, but it does little for Sutcliffe's security or mental well-being.

He wants to stay in Baltimore, feeling that the Orioles are close to something special, something that he wants to be a part of.

"A lot of good things have happened here," Sutcliffe said. "They said our starting pitching was a question mark. They know that we're not guys who just go out there. We've pitched well and when the guys have lost, they stood up and took responsibility. And with all that's happened, there's still room for improvement."

Sutcliffe said he was not preoccupied with getting a long-term contract. He said he turned down two-year deals and pacts that offered more money to come to Baltimore because of the opportunity to play for Oates, whom he knows from his Dodgers and Cubs days.

What Sutcliffe will not tolerate for next season is a separation from his wife and daughter. They remained in his native Missouri to allow Shelby to stay in school, but he is adamant that they will relocate to wherever he is pitching next season.

"There's nothing I haven't enjoyed about this whole summer, except for the family," said Sutcliffe. "Where I leave my wife when I go out on the road and where she [his daughter] is going to go to school, those things are important," he said.

For now, however, where Shelby Sutcliffe will attend school next year is out of her father's hands.

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