Rick Sutcliffe's ship came in. No, not the proverbial luxury liner of life—that one will dock some time around Christmas, laden with, oh, about $10 million, enough to last for, say, five years.
This was a real ship, the S.S. Norway. Early last Saturday, on a warm and sunny morning, the Cubbie blue-and-white vessel slid into Piers 1 and 2 of the Port of Miami. On board was the National League's Cy Young Award winner and his wife, Robin. The Sutcliffes had just spent a relaxing week on the Caribbean, testing the free-agent waters.
"We didn't come to a decision," Sutcliffe said while waiting for U.S. Customs to clear the ship, "but we talked about it quite a bit, and we have a pretty good idea of what we'd finally like to do."
Sutcliffe was drafted by eight teams, but so far, he and his agent, Barry Axelrod, have had serious discussions only with the Cubs, who retained rights to him, the spendthrift Braves, his hometown Royals and his playoff nemesis, the Padres. At the baseball meetings in Houston this week, Sutcliffe and Axelrod plan to sit down with other teams, most notably the Angels, Cards and Orioles. The Rangers don't satisfy Sutcliffe's preference for a pennant contender, and the Yankees are not his style.
December 10, 1984
"There were fans of every team on board," said Sutcliffe, "and they all made their pitch." Comedian Tom Dreesen and Frankie Avalon were part of the S.S. Norway's entertainment package, and Sutcliffe says they were pushing the Cubs. Said Dreesen, first president of the Die-Hard Cubs Fan Club, "I told him on the beach one day in the Bahamas, 'Sammy Davis gave me my break. The Cubs gave you your break.' He's a great guy, and I would respect any decision he makes, but if he signs with the Padres, the next time we're on a cruise together, I'll throw him over the side."
Whatever decision Sutcliffe makes, he'll get a shipload of money. The Cubs' problem is not quite so pleasant. Until last week, general manager Dallas Green was faced with the prospect of losing four of his top pitchers to free agency: starters Sutcliffe (16-1 for the Cubs after being acquired from Cleveland on June 13), Steve Trout (13-7), Dennis Eckersley (10-8 for Chicago after being obtained from Boston on May 25) and reliever Tim Stoddard (10-6, 7 saves). But on Wednesday he signed Eckersley to a three-year $2.35 million contract, with an option on a fourth year at $650,000. One down, three to go.
Green was all business in his Wrigley Field office. "We left one game unresolved to our satisfaction last year, and our job is to fix that this year. If we have those pitchers, it'll be that much easier. I don't blame them for going through the draft, but I do want them to realize that the grass may seem greener on the other guy's porch [how's that again?], when it really isn't. I think they'll find Chicago money spends as well as anybody else's, and we are willing to pay as much as they are offered...without going crazy, of course."
Green is a consummate poker player, and he has been giving the other teams signals that he will see their raises. At the free-agent draft, he didn't choose anybody, but he did retain the rights to his four pitchers to let everyone know just how serious the Cubs were. Tribune Company, the team's bankroller, has not given Green a blank check, but he does have a firm commitment to spend whatever he thinks it'll take.
Andrew J. McKenna, chairman of the board, says, "When we were first interviewing Dallas, we went down to his farm in Pennsylvania. A neighbor barged in and said, 'My bull is loose,' and Dallas excused himself and ran out of there. Well, they got the bull back in his pen. You might say we're happy to let Dallas take this bull by the horns."
Green corralled Eckersley without too much trouble because the pitcher liked playing with the Cubs. "I also like the money," Eckersley said. "I wasn't going to get what Sutcliffe's going to get, but when you get up that high, I wouldn't know what to do with it all. Rick knows, though. He wears jeans and boots, and tells you he's just a country boy. Bull."
The Cubs desperately require a lefthander, but 17 other teams indicated a desire to poach Trout, and his agent, Alan Hendricks, says they are perfectly happy to wait and listen. "We're talking seriously with nine clubs," says Hendricks. Said Trout recently, "I would like a three-or four-year deal, but I don't care too much about the length." Chicago is Trout's hometown, and pitching coach Billy Connors is, as Trout says, "my avatar." But Chicago's first two offers didn't dazzle Trout and Hendricks. Trout can afford to play the waiting game. If Sutcliffe signs on elsewhere, the Cubs will have to meet Trout's price—or forget the pennant in '85.
Stoddard, who is represented by Eckersley's agent, Ed Keating, was drafted by nine teams, and although he liked pitching for Chicago, he does hanker for a job as the save man in a bullpen. "I never sign before January anyway," he says. The waiting game could pay off in a big way for Stoddard, too, especially if the reports about the Braves' 30-year, $48 million deal with reliever Bruce Sutter prove true. (Atlanta's actual cost would be about $9 million.) The signing could take place this week. If it happens, Stoddard might replace Sutter as Toronto's top relief choice. Poor Green. There are vultures everywhere, but he's an aggressive G.M., as he proved in '84.
A year ago, Sutcliffe was with the Indians, Eckersley the Red Sox, Stoddard the A's and Trout the Unfulfilled Potentials. Who's to say Green couldn't put together another staff? But Green says he can't. "I gave up some pretty good players to get them [Bill Buckner, Joe Carter and Mel Hall, among others], and you can't keep doing that. I was a little lucky, but I was also taking the risk I couldn't sign them after the season."
Like Sutcliffe, Green has been at sea, figuratively and literally. Before Thanksgiving, he was on a special Cubs Caribbean cruise where fans got to mingle with some of the players and manager Jim Frey. Says Green, "People kept coming up to me and saying, 'Are you gonna get Sutcliffe?...Are you gonna get Trout?...Are you gonna get Eckersley?...Are you gonna get Stoddard?' Each time I got asked, I would stick out my hand and say, 'How much money are you willing to give me?' "
Cub fans are still on a slight high, even after dropping the last three games of the playoffs to San Diego. The thought that Sutcliffe would sign with the Padres, though, is a prospect they find slightly abhorrent. As Bernie Lincicome, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote, "Joining the team that beat Sutcliffe in the last Cub game of the year would be as tasteless as an accused murderer marrying the victim's widow." Lincicome further argued that "he should show the proper gratitude [for being rescued from Cleveland] by allowing the Cubs to make him obscenely well-to-do. He owes Chicago that—the city, not the team. He left a season and a dream unfinished when he walked off the mound in San Diego."
That view is a bit hard perhaps, but no harder than Sutcliffe has been on himself for blowing a 3-0 sixth-inning lead in the final playoff game. "I'm not over it yet," says Sutcliffe, "and I may never be. But I can't think about my past now. I have to think about my future, what's best for me and Robin and my little girl for the next five years.
"Kansas City is my home. San Diego is a nice place to play in, and they have a great team. And last year, just like a lot of people, I became a Cub fan. I'm not going to pretend money has nothing to do with it, but I'm not going to turn this into an auction. Of course, I do have six more mouths to feed. My hunting beagle, Opie, just had a litter."
The Royals and Padres have been doing the most serious courting, so far. Sutcliffe is a little puzzled that the Cubs haven't tried harder. "We got one offer before the draft, but it was the same contract I had last year."
Recently, Sutcliffe and Kansas City general manager John Schuerholz played a round of golf at Lakewood Country Club, which was supposed to be closed that day. For three hours, they talked about the Royals and laughed at each other's shots. The next night, at the exclusive Kansas City Club, the Sutcliffes and Axelrod dined with the Schuerholzes and the Royals' two principal owners, Ewing Kauffman and Avron Fogelman. The mayor of Kansas City, Dick Berkley, dropped by to chat. Then the governor of Missouri, Kit Bond, came around and talked hunting and children with Sutcliffe. At that point, Axelrod turned to Kauffman and said, "If President Reagan drops in, we give up."
In the meantime, a letter-writing campaign was organized in Kansas City by Dave Lawrence, a disc jockey on WDAF and a friend of Sutcliffe's. The Sutcliffes are still receiving 30 letters a day at their farm in Lee's Summit, Mo. Their nearest neighbor is K.C.'s Frank White.
In San Diego, Sutcliffe and Axelrod were wined and dined by a party that included Padre owner Joan Kroc, president Ballard Smith, G.M. Jack McKeon, manager Dick Williams and Rick's old Dodger friend, Steve Garvey. "The next day we were driving along the freeway, listening to the radio," says Axelrod. "They had a call-in show, and the question was, 'What would you personally do to help bring Rick Sutcliffe to San Diego?' One guy offered to give him surfing lessons. A landscaper phoned in and said he would landscape Rick's house for free."
The public's interest in Sutcliffe's future was apparent on board the S.S. Norway. He had committed himself to the Norwegian Caribbean Lines 10 months ago, before he became famous. He had plenty of time to study his contract notes because all he had to do was sign autographs, give a little talk and judge the S.S. Norway Olympics.
"One of the best things was that I got to play basketball, which I could never do if I were under contract. I also did a little gambling. The dealers kept saying, 'That's 21, Mr. Sutcliffe. Are you going to sign with the Cubs?' "
Or, are you going to sign with the Royals or Padres or Braves or Angels or Orioles? As Frankie Avalon sings, Just Ask Your Heart.