Sutcliffe deserves encore in opener

MIKE LITTWIN

September 28, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

The Orioles ran out some of their glorious past yesterday. Which was nice. Nostalgia is a cottage industry in the baseball biz, and the Orioles know to do their part.

And so, as the pennant race officially ended, we saw Rick Dempsey, secretly reactivated that morning, standing at the plate and playfully pointing to left, in his own warped tribute to baseball past.

He entered the game in the eighth to catch Mike Flanagan. The pairing was no coincidence. Johnny Oates wanted them out there together so the fans could say goodbye to Demper and Flanny (although neither has announced his retirement) and those particular glory days.

It was a Camden Yards mini-farewell to the days of Memorial Stadium.

As the inaugural home season ends tonight, Camden Yards has its own history now.

Rick Sutcliffe, the starting pitcher yesterday, made some of that history. He was there on Opening Day when the improbable TC pennant race began. His shutout was the first suggestion there could be any kind of race.

And he was there yesterday, if briefly, when the race ended in a 6-1 Orioles loss.

"I stunk," he said, in what we now know to be Sutcliffian candor.

We know the candor. And we know Sutcliffe. We know the 230-plus innings he's pitched and the 16 games he's won and how he's a big brother to the pitching staff and how he's the real leader of the ballclub.

What we don't know is whether he'll be back next season.

"To be completely honest," he said, "I have no idea."

This should be a no-brainer, but it isn't. There's a complicating factor this season -- the expansion draft. The Orioles can protect only 15 players when the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies stock their teams. If the Orioles sign and protect Sutcliffe, who is eligible to become a free agent, they risk losing one of their prospects.

There is a way around this, of course. The Orioles simply persuade Sutcliffe to come to some sort of understanding that they'll sign him immediately after the Nov. 17 draft.

But will they?

Larry Lucchino has said the team wants Sutcliffe back. Sutcliffe indicates he'd like to be back. But life isn't always that easy.

"If you know me," Sutcliffe said, "you know something can be worked out. We went to them in July and tried to get something worked out. They said they had other priorities then. I understood that then, and I understand their problems now with having to protect me.

"I've loved pitching here this season. But if we have to go to file for free agency, we'll have to listen to what's out there."

There's a complicating factor for Sutcliffe, too. He is a husband and a father. He went to the Orioles in July, hoping to get a contract signed for next season, so he could buy a house in the area and put his daughter Shelby in school here.

"As good as this season has been on the field, that's how bad it has been off the field," he said. "It has been the worst season, bar none, off the field.

"Part of that has to do with my mom's illness. But I've spent 10 weeks away from my family. I've never done that before. I go home each night to a four-bedroom house and it's just me in there. It gets lonely. I'll never do it this way again."

His family is back home in suburban Kansas City. It's possible that if the Kansas City Royals were interested next season, Sutcliffe might be interested. If the Chicago White Sox -- Chicago is his second home -- were interested, Sutcliffe might be interested.

It's up to the Orioles to ensure that he can be made comfortable right here.

Put simply, they can't afford to lose him. They can afford to lose Craig Lefferts. (If you're going to spend $2.3 million on a player now, spend it on a hitter.) But Sutcliffe is more than the anchor of the pitching staff. He is the kind of guy who gets in the face of an everyday player and demands that he bring the same ferocity to the field that Sutcliffe brings (this happened).

Maybe, at age 36, he's no sure bet to equal his performance of this year. But he's worth the risk. Besides, he's happy with an incentive-laden contract.

"It doesn't matter what the guarantee is," he said. "If I can't play, I'm not taking somebody's million dollars. I don't want to hold anybody up."

Believe me, this guy is your dream player.

The Orioles open their second season at Camden Yards April 5 against Texas. Nolan Ryan probably will be pitching for the Rangers. Rick Sutcliffe should be pitching for the Orioles.

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