On and off mound, control continues to serve Sutcliffe

March 07, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It was too soon for nostalgia and too late for second thoughts, so Rick Sutcliffe took the mound yesterday and tried to treat the Orioles like any other opponent. He just couldn't do it.

He's trying to win a place in the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation, but it took him awhile to get comfortable with the idea of pitching against a team that he fully expected to play for this season.

"I'd rather not," he said. "When you want to come inside, it's tough to have your friends standing there. I can't wait until Thursday [his next start]. We'll use the inside part of the plate a little bit more."

The Orioles did not exhibit any reservations about hitting against him. They greeted Sutcliffe with three runs on five hits in the first inning and threatened to turn his first exhibition start with the Cardinals into a minor embarrassment, but he regrouped to pitch two scoreless innings and got the decision when St. Louis came back to score an 8-3 victory at Al Lang Stadium.

"It's a little weird seeing him in a red uniform," said shortstop Cal Ripken, who singled in a run off Sutcliffe in the first inning, "but you sometimes have to separate your friendships from the game. You have to try to accomplish something with every at-bat. But it was different."

It was not an impressive performance, but it was not unlike many that Sutcliffe delivered in his two seasons as a member of the Orioles. He didn't wow anybody with his velocity or his control, but he remained standing long enough to benefit from another big Cardinals offensive performance and helped keep the Orioles winless in Grapefruit League play.

"Sut was Sut," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "You can say what you want, but up on the scoreboard, it looks like he was the winning pitcher."

Sutcliffe can say whatever he wants, too, but he chooses his words carefully when he reflects on the circumstances that put him in a Cardinals uniform. He entered January still thinking that he would return for one more season in Baltimore, but chose St. Louis after turning down an Orioles offer that he thought was made only out of a sense of obligation.

"When Roland made the offer, it wasn't the same Roland from two years earlier," Sutcliffe said. "I don't hold anything against him. It just felt like he was doing it because he had to . . . not because he wanted to. It would have been tough to be a part of that.

"I didn't feel that I'd done anything wrong over there. I wasn't looking for anything guaranteed. I just wanted to come to camp, and if they didn't want me at the end, they could release me."

There is more regret in his voice than rancor. Sutcliffe won 16 games for the surprising 1992 club and got off to a big start in 1993 before a knee injury got in the way. He watched with enthusiasm as the Orioles finally added several front-line free agents for a run at the American League pennant this year, then was disappointed to find that he wasn't prominent in their plans.

Sutcliffe had helped with the development of the club's young starting rotation and his leadership had contributed to the development of a winning attitude in the clubhouse, but the financial obstacles of the Eli Jacobs ownership era kept the Orioles from making a really serious run at the world championship. It was only natural to want to be around for the fun.

"The Toronto Blue Jays went out and got [Paul] Molitor and [Dave] Stewart last year," he said. "In August, they added Rickey Henderson. We're not just talking about filling in pieces here. These guys are potential Hall of Famers. Then you look at the guys we got. I don't want to put down Craig Lefferts and Lonnie Smith, but I don't believe they are going to Cooperstown. I just wish Mr. Angelos had bought the team a couple of years sooner."

Instead, he is fighting for the fifth spot in the Cardinals' rotation, hoping to prove that another club gave up on him a year too soon.

"Tommy Lasorda told me in 1981 that I didn't belong in the big leagues," he said. "Larry Himes [Chicago Cubs general manager] said the same thing. One of these days somebody is going to be right. I guess in six months we'll know."

It is important to Sutcliffe to avoid the appearance of bitterness. To avoid burning bridges. He has too many friends in the Orioles' organization to be too angry, especially when he need only step on the field at Al Lang Stadium to see how he is regarded by his former teammates.

Center fielder Brady Anderson wore No. 40 on Saturday in honor of the big right-hander, a gesture that touched Sutcliffe and left his wife teary-eyed.

"It was just nice of him," Sutcliffe said. "He knows that for the two years I played with him, there wasn't anything I wouldn't do for him. Nobody ever threw at him. Nobody ever knocked him down. He knew there was a reason for that."

Anderson may have a sentimental streak, but it didn't show in yesterday's game. He doubled off Sutcliffe to start the Orioles' three-run rally and also had a base hit in his second at-bat. Sutcliffe made sure that he stopped by in the outfield later to get in his two cents.

"I told him, 'Man, you just got a long-term deal and I'm trying to make this team,' " Sutcliffe laughed.

Cal Ripken and Chris Hoiles gave no quarter either. Each drove home a run to make Sutcliffe squirm in a lengthy first inning. The final run came home on a wild pitch.

"After all that he has done for this organization over the last two years, it was kind of strange," Hoiles said. "We're going to miss his leadership. I think that's the biggest thing. He helped a lot of guys learn a lot about the game."

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