Following through after Sutcliffe

March 07, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ben McDonald still takes his morning runs at spring training, sometimes with Arthur Rhodes, sometimes by himself. "I'm trying to keep the tradition," McDonald said yesterday. "It worked the last few years. Why quit now?"

The tradition started with Rick Sutcliffe -- once around the fields at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, or the lake at Miller-Huggins Complex in St. Petersburg. But this spring, McDonald's lonely jogs symbolize a new era for the Orioles' young pitchers.

Now they must stand alone.

This no longer is Sutcliffe's staff. It is McDonald's and Mike Mussina's. McDonald, 26, says he's ready to carry the torch. Mussina, 25, seems less inclined, but he's fully aware of his growing responsibility, beginning with a likely Opening Day start.

"Sure, there comes a period of time when you feel you can handle more situations on your own,"

Mussina said yesterday. "It's kind of like growing up. You become more and more of an individual. You don't rely on your parents as much. He [Sutcliffe] wasn't a parent. But he was like an older brother."

Family ties, however, mean little in baseball's big-money era. The game functions like any business, with abrupt separations and unceremonial departures. The Orioles chose not to re-sign Sutcliffe, so now he's gone, gone to the St. Louis Cardinals, gone but not forgotten.

Brady Anderson switched from No. 9 to No. 40 in tribute to his former teammate Saturday, a gesture that moved Sutcliffe's wife, Robin, to tears. McDonald's devotion isn't on public display, but Sutcliffe taught him to attend spring games even when he wasn't pitching, so there he was yesterday, watching his mentor defeat the Orioles.

The loss of Sutcliffe will be a test for this team. Remember last April, when manager Johnny Oates erupted after a game in Texas, screaming, "Who's going to lead us?" Sutcliffe was his only candidate, but as a pitcher, his impact went only so far.

Now the Orioles have added Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo, but they lack a dominant clubhouse presence. Leadership can be overrated, and it falls partly to the manager, but Sutcliffe influenced Mussina and especially McDonald.

On those morning jogs, Sutcliffe would tell McDonald, "We'll get our bodies and legs in shape first, then our minds."

This started in the spring of 1992, after Sutcliffe joined the Orioles. "I didn't know what he was talking about at first," McDonald said. "But I do now."

McDonald calls Sutcliffe "the closest friend I've had in baseball," and Sutcliffe will be the only player in his wedding this November. The Mussina-Sutcliffe relationship isn't quite that close, but Sutcliffe said Mussina sent him a moving holiday card.

"A lot of things that went on between Mike and I, nobody knew about," Sutcliffe said.

But now it's time for McDonald, Mussina -- for the entire team, really -- to take the next step. "You've got to cut the ties, you've got to push forward, try to carry on with the things that he said," McDonald said. "I don't think we'll ever forget about him. But we've got to move on with baseball now."

Not long ago, McDonald was a goofy kid chasing his teammates with a giant water gun. Now, he's talking about assuming a greater role in the clubhouse. He can't be like Sutcliffe -- "there's not another one like that anywhere," Oates said -- but it's not too early for him to start trying.

"As far as leading the pitching staff, I don't know," McDonald said.

"I don't have the experience Sut had. But I've got the most Orioles [service] time of the starters [three years]. I think I can help. I picked up a lot of things from Sut, as far as trying to set the right example.

"I'm a lot like him. I like to screw around a lot on days I'm not pitching. But as far as work, I think that people might work as hard as me, but nobody works harder. I'd like to think I can be a leader for Arthur and the other guys coming along."

Anderson agreed. "Ben's the type of guy that could do it, Ben has that personality," Anderson said. "He can definitely be a leader on the team. He's someone everybody respects. He doesn't want to come out of games. He wants the ball."

Mussina? He's more introspective, but like McDonald he evolved into a leader in college. Anderson said pitchers could learn from him simply by watching him work on the mound. Mussina displays such fierce competitiveness, such concentration, it's almost bound to rub off.

Still, Mussina is 12 years younger than Sutcliffe. He has pitched in69 major-league games. Sutcliffe has pitched in 441.

"In college, you're dealing with people who aren't even of legal age," Mussina said.

"This is a little different scenario. I don't think I'm quite up to that role at 25 years old just yet. Maybe at 35 I will be."

As the likely No. 1 starter, Mussina will take on a greater burden anyway, matching up against the Randy Johnsons, the Juan Guzmans, the Jack McDowells. Years from now, assuming he and McDonald both remain Orioles, his quiet intensity could serve as a perfect complement to McDonald's vocal prodding.

No, there'll never be another Sutcliffe, but as Oates told McDonald, "it's time to fly by yourself." These days, McDonald jogs in one part of St. Petersburg, Sutcliffe another. "I miss the conversation," Sutcliffe said. "But now I've got a kid named Watson, a kid named Barber."

Time to cut the ties.

Time to move on.

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