No one has to ask Rick Sutcliffe if Oct. 3, 1981 was the low point of his baseball career. "It would have been the low point of anybody's career," he says. On that memorable day, Sutcliffe said goodby to the Los Angeles Dodgers by making a shambles of manager Tom Lasorda's office and screaming, "I'll never——play for you again!"
"I'll probably be remembered more for that than anything else I ever do," a remorseful Sutcliffe said the other afternoon at Chicago's Wrigley Field. "It'll always be, 'Hey, you're the guy that turned Lasorda's desk over.' That's an unfortunate thing to be remembered for."
But he's mistaken when he predicts he'll be remembered for nothing else. Since going to the Cubs from Cleveland on June 13, the red-bearded giant (he's 6'7") has won 12 games and lost only one, helping his team to a 5½-game lead in the National League East at week's end. Cub fans may someday remember Rick Sutcliffe as the midseason acquisition that made the miracle come true. This would put him on a pedestal with Hank Borowy, who went 11-2 for Chicago after coming over from the Yankees in July 1945, the last time the Cubs won a pennant.
The trade that brought Sutcliffe, a six-year veteran with career marks of 69-46 and a 3.87 ERA, reliever George Frazier and catcher Ron Hassey to the Cubs in exchange for four players, including young outfielders Mel Hall and Joe Carter, was one of Chicago's slickest moves ever. But fans wondered—still wonder—if general manager Dallas Green hadn't gambled away the club's future. Sutcliffe, already making $900,000 a year plus incentives, will become a free agent in October and he will surely want more money—much more. "It wasn't just another deal," says Cub manager Jim Frey. "It was a big deal; it took a lot of nerve."
How much nerve? Just consider the following:
•With Cleveland, Sutcliffe was off to a 4-5 start with an unsightly 5.15 ERA. Tormented by an infected tooth, in early May Sutcliffe lost 17 pounds, his control, his stuff, his equilibrium and, for a while, the hearing in his right ear.
•Over his last two full seasons, Sutcliffe walked 200 batters, more than any other pitcher in the American League.
•Sutcliffe is what Cub pitching coach Billy Connors calls a "wrist wrapper"—a pitcher who bends the wrist on his throwing hand sharply inward during his windup. "Usually when you see a guy do that, he has arm troubles," Connors says. "Most organizations won't sign somebody with that kind of problem."
•Although he later changed his mind, Sutcliffe last season exercised his right as a five-year veteran and demanded that the Indians trade him. The rules allow a player to list six clubs he will not play for. Among his six rejects Sutcliffe named...the Chicago Cubs.
This season, though, Sutcliffe was desperate to escape the last-place Indians, even though he gives them credit for taking him from L.A. three years ago. "I picked up 25 games in one night," he says. "That's a Houdini type of move!"
Sutcliffe's 10 straight wins since June 29 are the most by a Cub pitcher since Milt Pappas won 11 in a row in 1972. He has averaged a strikeout an inning, whiffing a career-high 14 Cardinals on June 24 (the most by a Cub pitcher in 13 years) and 12 Expos on Aug. 12. Five of his wins have followed a team loss.
Obviously Sutcliffe, 28, has more going for him than his reputation for office demolition. He was, in fact, the National League Rookie of the Year in 1979, winning 17 games for the Dodgers and driving in 17 runs (he had a .247 batting average). Last year he struck out 160 and won 17 games for the last-place Indians and made the American League All-Star team. "He has all the pitches," says Connors of his fastball, curve, changeup repertoire. "He has great composure on the mound. He's the kind of pitcher who can win without his good stuff. He's a good fielder, he can hold runners, he can hit and he can bunt."
He can also intimidate. Sutcliffe has plunked six hitters so far this season and made dozens more hop and reel out of the box. When he was ejected from a game last year for throwing close to the Angels' Daryl Sconiers, Sutcliffe left the field yelling at home-plate umpire Jim Evans, "You're taking my livelihood away!"
Even so, Sutcliffe knows how dangerous bounty hunting can be: In 1976 his best friend from high school was killed by a thrown baseball. "The one thing I'll never tolerate is somebody throwing at a batter's head," Sutcliffe says. "You go for his feet if you have to, but you don't throw at somebody's head."
If his pitching philosophy sounds belligerent—and he admits he grew his beard last season to add some fearsomeness to his on-the-mound demeanor—off the field Sutcliffe is gentle, cheerful, open and talkative. ("He can yak, can't he?" says his wife, Robin.) The Cleveland baseball writers voted him Man of the Year last season; this spring his Indian teammates picked him for the Golden Tomahawk Award, which honors a player's "good sportsmanship and contribution to baseball on and off the field."
As far as Dodger pitcher Bob Welch is concerned, Sutcliffe deserves another award: best supporting actor in a short subject. In January 1980, when Welch decided to battle his alcohol problem by going to The Meadows, a rehabilitation facility in Arizona, he was encouraged to invite a close friend to share a week of the therapy. Welch chose Sutcliffe. "I needed someone who was close to the situation," Welch says. "And Rick and I had picked each other out to discuss our home lives, our families and so on. I called him, and a day later there he was. It took a very special person to drop everything he was doing to help a friend, but that's what Rick and Robin did."
The Sutcliffes' part in Welch's recovery is described in Welch's book, Five O'clock Comes Early, and documented in a 23-minute film called Comebacker, which is shown at high schools, churches and alcohol-rehabilitation centers. In group discussions, Rick and Robin brought into the open the pain that Welch's drinking had caused them. Says Welch, "Rick played a very important role for me."
Sutcliffe is held in equally high regard in Independence, Mo., where he was all-state in football, basketball and baseball at Van Horn High. His most vocal fans split their affection between whatever team he happens to be pitching for and a local slo-pitch softball menagerie he sponsors called the Sutcliffe Sluggers, who pound the fences (and the beer) in the town of Sugar Creek. On nights when Sutcliffe pitches, the Sluggers hurry through their own game so they can rush to a nearby bar to watch their sponsor pitch on TV.
If Sutcliffe seems unusually devoted to this extended family, it may be because his childhood was punctuated by frequent moves; he attended seven different Kansas City-area schools in a 10-year span. "There was a lot of moving around, a lot of confusion," he says. His father, Dick Sutcliffe, was a professional racecar driver. "He did it for 20 years, and he was very good at it. They called him Mr. Excitement, and as far as sprint cars go, they don't get any better."
There was more excitement than security in racing, however, and the Sutcliffe kids—Rick has a younger brother, Terry, and a sister, Sherri—got used to spending weekends with their grandparents, Bill and Alice Yearout.
When Dick Sutcliffe and his wife, Louise, were divorced—Rick was 13—the kids moved in with the Yearouts for good, and Rick was estranged from his father for a time. He remembers being in Phoenix his first year in the Dodger organization and thinking he ought to call his dad. "But I didn't know where he was," he says. "I picked up a newspaper, and there he was on the front page. It said under the photo, 'Mr. Excitement Returns to Manzanita.' " Now retired from racing, Dick Sutcliffe operates a Kansas City trucking firm, Sutcliffe Transfer. Rick is a part owner, while Terry, who pitched behind Rick in the Dodger organization for three years, drives a truck for his dad.
There has also been a reconciliation with Lasorda, although the Dodger manager adamantly refuses to discuss the fireworks Sutcliffe staged in his office three years ago. "It ticks me off every time it's brought up," he snapped recently. "Every time Sutcliffe's name is mentioned, somebody asks me about what happened. That's history. Why don't you ask me about the Lindbergh baby?"
Sutcliffe is much less reticent, although he, too, would like to put the episode behind him. "I'm sorry it happened," he said the other day. "It's kind of embarrassing to have let something get me upset enough to slam a desk over in front of a 60-year-old man." (Actually, Lasorda was only 54, but the point is the same.)
Accounts published at the time attributed Sutcliffe's outburst solely to the fact that he hadn't been named to the Dodger roster for postseason play. (It was the strike season, with the two half-season division champs meeting in a miniseries.) Sutcliffe insists the fuse was lit a month earlier at a meeting with Lasorda, witnessed by Ron Perranoski, the team's pitching coach. "I told him I'd like to have five innings in one game, to see if I could pitch or not," Sutcliffe says. "And he said, 'You've got it.' There were three of us there, and he gave me his word."
By the next-to-last day of the season, however, a frustrated Sutcliffe had gotten to pitch just three innings in two separate games—allowing only one hit—before the playoff roster was released, sans Sutcliffe.
"That's when I went to his office," Sutcliffe says. "I said, 'Why? Why did you lie to me?' And he said, 'The opportunity didn't present itself.' Well, that was the biggest lie I'd ever heard. We were already in the playoffs from our first-half finish, and the Dodgers had brought in a reliever before the seventh inning in 20 of 31 games."
The rest of Sutcliffe's account sounds like a confession sweated out in a police interrogation room: "I remember I stood up. I knocked everything off his desk. I screamed, 'I'll never——play for you again!' I said, 'You lied to me, and you had no reason. I've done everything you've ever asked.' I picked his desk up and turned it over. I grabbed a chair and I was about to smash the wall with it...."
Ah, the wall. Lasorda uses the walls of his office to display treasured photographs of himself with various celebrities. "I saw the picture of Frank Sinatra, and I felt I'd seen enough of him," Sutcliffe remembers. "But before I could throw the chair at the wall I decided that having the Dodgers mad at me was bad enough. Having Frank Sinatra mad at me also might have been a little dangerous."
Lasorda's parting Dodger Blue Curse, Sutcliffe says, still rings in his ears. "He said, 'You've got no right being upset at me. The way you've pitched, you don't even belong in the big leagues!' " Thus, on Dec. 9, 1981, did the Dodgers exile Rick Sutcliffe to Cleveland.
As an Indian, Sutcliffe gained a reputation as a prankster, giving roommate and curveball master Bert Blyleven a pie in the face during a TV show, pouring wet, sticky stuff into rookies' shoes, and aiding Blyleven and Frazier in the testing of a water-balloon slingshot built from surgical tubing. On the more serious side, he took an active role in the Indians' chapter of the Baseball Chapel, which he calls "one of the neatest things around." He also began to commit a healthy portion of his own energy and money to various charities, his favorites being the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. "I give as much of my time as I can," he says, "because there's such a short time I'll be wearing this uniform. When I take it off, kids won't listen to me anymore."
A World Series ring is always an attention-getter, though. "This is the opportunity I've been looking for ever since I was with the Dodgers," Sutcliffe says. "In 1981, I got a World Series ring; I got the check; I got the trophy. But my pride won't let me wear that ring." He holds up his naked ring finger. "Now I want one I can wear."
His grandmother, surprisingly, thinks Sutcliffe should stick with the Cubs and put aside thoughts of going to the Royals, whose park is but a short drive from Rick and Robin's six-acre spread in Lee's Summit, Mo. "I'd love to have him back home," Alice Yearout says, "but I think his friends would pester him to death and he wouldn't get any rest." Bob Coates, star outfielder for the Sutcliffe Sluggers, also says nix to the Royals: "We want Rick to stay with the Cubs. We get all their games on TV."
Last July, knowing that he would probably encounter Lasorda at the All-Star Game, Sutcliffe went to teammate Andre Thornton for advice. "I didn't know what I was going to do, but Andre said, 'If you feel bad about what happened, apologize and tell him so.' And that's exactly what I did."
Lasorda's reaction? Sutcliffe grins. "He reached up and gave me a big hug."
Only fair, then, to give Lasorda the last word on Sutcliffe: "He is," Lasorda says, "an outstanding pitcher."
Obviously, the curse has been lifted.