O's ought to take what Sutcliffe offers

JOHN EISENBERG

August 23, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

Whether Rick Sutcliffe will return to the Orioles next season is, of course, very much in doubt. But this isn't about that.

Whether he still has the stuff to be a major-league starter is nothing if not debatable. But this isn't about that.

This is about whether the Orioles got lucky. Whether, if it so happens that Sutcliffe doesn't return, the Orioles -- meaning everyone, from the rookies to the manager to the new owners -- learned the lesson Sutcliffe has taught these last few months.

It's a lesson as essential to winning baseball -- to franchise-building, to sustaining a career -- as home runs and strikeouts. A lesson that can only be passed down from an old, wise head such as Sutcliffe, 37, but gets passed less and less frequently in this day of ballplayers throwing firecrackers and Clorox and blame.

The lesson is about handling failure, which, as anyone in the game knows, is baseball's first commandment: Thou Shalt Handle Failure, Or Thou Shalt Sell Insurance. Because it's a game of failure, of countless losses and disappointments, and anyone who can't take it, who can't take the bad with the good, is a short-timer.

These past two months, as he has struggled mightily and finally yielded his spot in the rotation, Sutcliffe has taught the Orioles how to take it. He hasn't blamed anyone else. He hasn't hid in the trainers' room after poor outings. He hasn't moped in the clubhouse and dragged others down. He hasn't lost his cool and smashed water coolers. He hasn't stopped working. He hasn't brought his losses to the park the next day.

After 375 career starts, 164 wins, 134 losses, a lifetime as the workhorse, he was sent to the bullpen last week. He didn't curse or whine or blame someone else. He just faced the fact that he's been lousy.

It's called being a pro, mature, dignified, responsible for your actions. A clubhouse of such players is ready for the inevitably wild ride of 162 games. If the Orioles are real lucky, their clubhouse has been taking notes.

Humility, of course, is a tough sell on highly paid athletes who have known little else besides success and coddling. Sutcliffe had to have someone teach him. He was a young hothead who blew it with the Dodgers by tearing up Tommy Lasorda's office. Then, in 1984, as a Cub, he won 16 straight games and the Cy Young Award.

"Things couldn't have gone much better for me that year," Sutcliffe said yesterday, "but after that season, a friend of mine named Randy Owen, who is the lead singer for [country band] Alabama, told me about peaks and valleys. He told me that the higher you get, the deeper the valley is going to get when you struggle. And the only way to handle both is to be the same person through both. That stuck with me."

One could argue that the Orioles need badly to learn the lesson.

They've been a streaky, high-strung team this year, consistently inconsistent, a team that wins eight straight and loses eight straight. Last week manager Johnny Oates said this when a reporter asked if the club had the talent to win: "If people would leave us alone and let us play." He was just frustrated, but his frustration was evidence of failure's powerful grip, and the need to be able to handle it.

"Staying even is the only way to get through this game day after day and year after year," Sutcliffe said. "There are just too many highs and lows. When I won Opening Day here last year, I was out there signing autographs. That was easy. But I was back out there when I lost on Opening Day this year.

"There are all sort of things. Share the credit when things are going well. It's never just you. And take the blame when things aren't going well. Players who make excuses, I don't know who they think they're fooling. The fans know the deal. Step up there and take the heat. Be a man. You're better off for it. You can look at yourself in the mirror."

He was talking yesterday long after the Orioles' 11-4 loss to the Rangers. He had been with doctors and trainers for an hour, discussing his left knee, in which, it turns out, there is torn cartilage.

"Apparently it's been in there awhile," he said. "But it's no excuse. We talked about surgery. I want to keep pitching."

Earlier he had pitched in relief for the first time in two years, yielding four runs in 2 1/3 innings. It was not a pretty sight: One of the game's best clutch pitchers, reduced to mopping up. And in a pennant race, no less.

"Was it weird coming out of the bullpen?" someone said.

He weighed the question a moment. He smiled. "Naw," he said. "It's my job."

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