Superbly suited for Sutter

Reliever Bruce Sutter's new coach in St. Louis is an old friend and mentor
June 03, 1984

Cardinal reliever Bruce Sutter went into a deep funk after a 4-3 loss to Houston on May 22. In the top of the 11th inning Astro catcher Mark Bailey had blooped one of Sutter's split-fingered fastballs to short rightfield and reached second when Andy Van Slyke misjudged the ball. Then pinch hitter Kevin Bass poked a seeing-eye single into left to drive in Bailey, the winning run. Now Sutter sat by his locker and contemplated drowning himself in his cup of beer.

Eventually he was approached by St. Louis pitching coach Mike Roarke, 53. They talked baseball, as baseball men will do, but they didn't mention the events of the night. "If he'd pitched badly, we'd have talked about it," Roarke said later. "But when one guy hits a little fly that drops in and another sticks out his bat and gets a base hit, there's not much to say." By the next morning Sutter was well rested and cheerful, which is the way a fellow with nine saves and a 1.30 ERA should feel. By week's end he had added another save and had allowed runs in only five of 20 appearances.

The St. Louis season might well depend on such conversations between Sutter and Roarke. In 1982 the Cardinals were world champions, and Sutter had a 2.90 ERA and a league-leading 36 saves. Last year, when St. Louis slumped to fourth in the NL East, Sutter had a 4.23 ERA and only 21 saves. Cause and effect? Manager Whitey Herzog thought so. When pitching coach Hub Kittle asked to be reassigned to coaching and scouting duties nearer his home in Yakima, Wash., Herzog hired Roarke, who is widely, if somewhat inaccurately, known as Sutter's personal mentor.

Roarke was the Chicago Cubs' pitching coach while Sutter was becoming the National League's top reliever from 1978 to '80. After the '80 season, Sutter was traded to the Cardinals, and Roarke decided to sell insurance and spend more time with his wife and five kids in Cranston, R.I. But he and Sutter were never more than a phone call away. With Kittle's permission, Roarke visited Sutter at least once a year to assess his delivery. Sutter's unparalleled average of 27 saves a year (over eight seasons) and his lifetime total of 225 (second to Milwaukee's Rollie Fingers, who had 310 at week's end) testify to Roarke's effectiveness.

However, after last year Sutter seemed to need full-time assistance. "I can't deny that having Bruce here was one of the main reasons I hired Mike," says Herzog. "But I'd known Mike since we were teammates on the 1963 Tigers [Herzog was an outfielder, Roarke a catcher], and I'd watched him when he was coaching the Cubs. I knew he was knowledgeable and had good rapport with players. When Mike talked, people listened." Herzog also knew that Roarke had managed three minor league clubs and been a roving pitching instructor for the Cubs. And he knew that other pitchers Roarke had coached in Chicago, including Bill Caudill, who's now with the A's, Mike Krukow of the Giants, Dennis Lamp of the Blue Jays and Rick Reuschel of the Cubs, had done well. Moreover, for the past three seasons Roarke had been a respected part-time coach for Boston's Pawtucket, R.I. farm club. Says Bruce Hurst, Boston's best starter, who played in Pawtucket for part of 1980 and '81, "He [Roarke] just turned me around. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have returned to the big leagues in 1981."

Nonetheless, Herzog and Sutter had to reassure the other Cardinal pitchers that they, too, were getting a mentor. And that has been the case. Dave Rucker had been tiring on the mound, so Roarke told him to stop raising his hands above his head and kicking high. As of Sunday, Rucker had an ERA of 1.29. Roarke got Neil Allen, who had a 2-1 record, a 3.57 ERA and two saves, to slow down his motion. "He keeps it simple for you," Allen says. And Roarke has helped Joaquin Andujar cut back on his macho act by having him mix in changeups with the big heat. Andujar, who was 6-16 last year, at week's end had a 3.16 ERA and an 8-4 record, including seven complete games and three shutouts.

"Mike and I have a unique relationship," says Sutter, 31. "I consider him more of a friend than a coach. He's always willing to hear your problems, and that's important. Just because players make a lot of money doesn't mean they have no problems. What it all boils down to is the confidence factor. When someone you believe in asks you to make an adjustment, you're more likely to do what he says than if someone you don't know asks you."

The confidence factor is especially important when you rely almost entirely on the split-fingered fastball, a difficult pitch that no one else in the league throws effectively, Sutter learned the pitch in the minors from a coach named Fred Martin, but Roarke has been watching him throw it off and on for 10 seasons. "If it were my first season watching him, I'd have trouble detecting what he sometimes does wrong," says Roarke.

"When you've coached a man more than once, you have a feel for what he's doing," says former Cardinal Jim Kaat, who retired this spring with 283 wins over 25 seasons. "That's because baseball is more of an art than a science. I had the same kind of relationship with Johnny Sain, who coached me with the Twins and the White Sox." Kaat had three 20-win seasons under Sain's tutelage.

Roarke seems to be every pitcher's best friend. "Mike's as good an instructor and expert on mechanics as anyone I've seen," says Brown University coach and former Washington Senator pitcher Dave Stenhouse, the father of Montreal outfielder Mike. "I think that's because he's worked in so many capacities, from bullpen catcher to minor league manager." No sooner did Roarke take the Cardinal job than he discovered that Sutter had been using his lead shoulder improperly. "It was a problem I couldn't figure out myself," says Sutter.

Roarke rarely goes to the mound to speak with Sutter. Instead, he makes signs from the dugout—an arm twitch here, a leg twitch there, a shrug to say, "You were in the right position, the ball just didn't break." Says Merry Sue, his wife of 25 years, "He's honest and quiet and personable. He has a dry wit; I guess you'd call it a true Irish wit. He can make a person feel worthwhile or put a person in his place with one or two words."

Roarke, who celebrated his silver wedding anniversary last November by going to Mass with his wife, has little if any ego. "If a pitcher does well, I look smart," he says. "Branch Rickey had a great line. He heard a pitching coach bragging about how he'd 'made' a player. Branch's idea was to fire the coach because the club had released probably 40 or 50 pitchers the guy had worked with. He hadn't 'made' them, Branch would say.

"I don't have much use for stats," continues Roarke. "Suppose a guy does the job four times and gets blasted the fifth. He may have a high ERA, but he's pitched well enough to win four out of five times. I don't care how fast a guy's throwing but how well. A guy can get hit throwing at 90 miles per hour but dazzle you at 88. But the JUGS gun does have merit if it shows that a guy's throwing unusually slowly at the beginning of a game or is tailing off in the later innings.

"Pitching is basically a three-pronged process. There's proper arm position, which you learn on the sidelines. Then there's pitching to hitters, which is all you should think about on the mound. Finally, there's the confidence to throw certain pitches in certain situations, which only comes with success. One fellow throws a pitch a certain way. Another tries to throw the same pitch with the same grip and position and has problems. That's why pitching is such an individual process."

A football end, baseball catcher and the captain of both sports at Boston College, Roarke decided to sign with the Braves because he could get more money in baseball than football. After six years in the minors he was traded to the Tigers in a four-player deal that featured the late Charlie Lau. Roarke hit .230 as a part-time Tiger catcher from 1961 to '64. Then, after coaching three years apiece for California and Detroit, managing at Toledo, Evansville, Ill. and Wichita, Kans. for a total of five years and instructing in the Cub system for two seasons, he returned to the majors as Chicago's pitching coach in 1978. He's back this year because four of his five kids have graduated from high school and his wife told him, "Go for it!"

One reason the Cardinals may have hired Roarke is that Sutter will become a free agent at season's end. Will he break with St. Louis and his longtime coach? "Doesn't matter where I pitch," he says. "I'll have a day off, Mike will have a day off, and we'll sneak off somewhere."

PHOTORoarke (right) has helped Sutter regain the form he displayed when both were Cubs.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)