Rick Sutcliffe pitched a shutout during the Opening Day game… (BO RADER, Baltimore Sun )
Former Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe had every intention of heading home for the 1992 season, and why not?
His roots — and his family — were in the Kansas City area, where he grew up within a short drive of Royals Stadium. He had already accomplished quite a lot during the first 13 years of his major league career, and he figured the time was right to spend the rest of that career sleeping in his own bed after home games.
Maybe it's true that life is what happens while you're making other plans, because Sutcliffe's lifeplan changed with one phone call from an old friend and a brief visit to an unfinished stadium in a place he had never heard of called Camden Yards.
"It was all because of that ballpark,'' he said.
This story has been told before, but like most reminisces, it gets better with time and will become even more meaningful for Sutcliffe and Orioles fans when he throws out the ceremonial first pitch on Friday to open the 20th anniversary season at Oriole Park.
"I flew into Baltimore as a favor to Johnny Oates in '91,'' Sutcliffe said. "I had no intention of signing with the Orioles."
Oates was preparing for his first full year as Orioles manager after replacing Frank Robinson early in the '91 season and he felt he needed a well-credentialed veteran starter to take the heat off up-and-coming pitchers Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. The old-friend part dated back to the 1979 season in Los Angeles, when Oates was winding down his playing career and Sutcliffe was breaking through as the National League Rookie of the Year.
"He took me out to the ballpark site,'' Sutcliffe said, "and I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'You know what I'm doing. You're going to throw the first pitch here.'
"So, I started to look around, and everywhere I looked reminded me of a great place for baseball. There is so much of it that is just unique. I came back (with ESPN) to do the final night of the season last year, and it didn't look a bit different."
Everyone knows the rest of the story. Sutcliffe signed with the Orioles and opened the new ballpark in style, pitching a five-hit shutout for the first of his 16 victories that year. He would remain in Baltimore to go 10-10 in 1993 before returning to his home state to finish his career with theSt. Louis Cardinalsin 1994.
He has a lot of great memories, starting with that terrific rookie season in Los Angeles and including his amazing 16-1 run that carried the Chicago Cubs into the playoffs in 1984, but he places that inaugural pitch at Camden Yards right alongside another historic first pitch at the top of the list of his most memorable baseball moments.
The first took place on Aug. 8. 1988, when he threw the first pitch after the lights were turned on at Wrigley Field, and Sutcliffe says now the two experiences remain closely connected in his memory after all these years.
"That was the first time I remember everybody in the crowd taking a flash picture at the very same moment,'' he said. "I didn't even know what happened until afterward. I thought it was nerves, but I could barely see the ball because of the glare. So, when I threw that first pitch at Camden Yards, as I let it go, I kind of closed my eyes.
"That first night game at Wrigley really prepared me for the first game at Camden Yards. I just had a calm about it. I knew it was special and we all knew that we had to win that game."
Sutcliffe, like the rest of us, looks back on April 6, 1992 very fondly, but it wasn't exactly the most pleasant experience of his career. He and a number of his teammates were still feeling the effects of apparent food poisoning after an exhibition game at RFK Stadium a couple days earlier.
"I had like a 103 fever,'' he said, "but it didn't matter. Johnny Oates knew I was going to pitch. He came out in the ninth inning and asked me if I wanted him to bring in Gregg Olson. He knew the answer. Gregg was a great closer and he would have done the job, but Johnny knew I wasn't going to let him do that."
"I'm glad we had gotten a second run, because if it had been 1-0, I don't know if he would have left me out there."
Sutcliffe has settled into a comfortable post-playing career as a color analyst for ESPN, but he also uses his public platform to spread the word about the importance of early detection to catch colon cancer while it still is very treatable.
He was diagnosed in 2008 with a treatable form and underwent successful surgery and chemotherapy.
"I guess it was meant to be,'' Sutcliffe said. "More than 3,000 people have written to me to say that they got (a colonoscopy) because they heard about me. That means a lot. Early detection. That's the key."
Sutcliffe was only a member of the Orioles for two seasons, but he said that he and his family enjoyed every minute of it.
"If our roots weren't in Kansas City,'' he said, "we could have stayed in Baltimore for the rest of our lives."
Read Peter Schmuck's blog, The Schmuck Stops Here, at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
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