Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101 - Pt 22 - Rick Sutcliffe

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Ask any GM and they'll give you the tired, stale line about how the best trades are the ones that benefit both teams.  It's the political thing to say, but as we all know, the very best trades are the ones where WE reap ALL the benefits, and the other guy ends up with dick!  But if you go around saying things like that, then nobody wants to deal with you, and that's why you don't see George Steinbrenner and his progeny involved in any trades.  Everyone knows the Steinbrenners love nothing on this Earth more than wallowing around in the blood of their enemies.

Remember when Mark Prior was drafted a few years back, that it wasn't a matter of if, but when he would wear a major league uniform and have his way with the league?  That's how it was when Joe Carter was drafted in the first round by the Cubs in 1981 out of Wichita State, which coincidentally was the single worst Cubs team I have ever seen.  So it was no surprise when, less than two years later, Carter was called up and was immediately expected to hit five-run homers. 

Well, Joe went 9-for-51 in his first big-league stint, with one double, one triple, and absolutely no homers.  I'm not sure what Dallas Green really expected, but there certainly seemed to be an air of disappointment, typical of recent Cubs draft history, one that included such luminaries as Gene Hiser, Scot Thompson, Herman Segelke and Brian Rosinski, who was picked 4th overall in 1975 and never saw one game of big league action.  I always wondered if all that went into account when Carter was included in the Rick Sutcliffe trade of June, 1984, the trade that won our first NL Divisional crown ever.  But fast forward to the summer of 1986, living in Ohio, watching one of those 17-16 Indians/Rangers melees they used to have in the Bandbox of Arlington or whatever.  Carter had two singles, two doubles, two homers, 8 RBI, and that was just one of about 100 other times in my life where I would turn on the TV and watch Joe Carter rake like a man, for someone else.  He didn't walk much, but he did everything else pretty well.

As for Mr. Sutcliffe, as you might imagine, he held up his end of the win-win scenario too.  Since this site started, we have preached the need and the value of a true Staff Ace.  A Staff Ace is a guy who stops losing streaks; prolongs winning streaks; throws 240 innings; wins at least 17 games every year; needs to break bones to go on the DL; and generally imparts leadership, wisdom and stability to the rest of the lesser-beings on the staff.  For us, for several years, starting in 1984, Rick absolutely WAS that guy.  There was no 1984 Division title without him.  Yes, we gave up a lot for him, but how many other mid-season trades can you think of that match the impact of 16 wins, 1 loss?  Go ahead, think about it.  We'll wait here.

Sut had stuff, not legendary stuff though.  He threw hard, but not Kerry Wood hard.  He had breaking balls, but not like Mark Prior had.  He was intimidating, but not like Carlos Zambrano is today.  He prepared and thought through a game plan, but not like Greg Maddux did.  But he did all those things well enough, I guess, and his successes continued well past the magical first season with us.

Logically, Cubs fans were hungry for more in 1985 after the disappointment in the NLCS.  Management did their part by either signing or extending the contracts of the entire starting rotation.  You may know that at one point that summer, the entire five-man rotation was on the DL.  Yes, all at the same time.  The dominos started to fall when Sut pulled his hammy running out a grounder.  Yes, it was bad to see our Ace go down, but as the other starters went down, Sut came back too soon to fill the void, and while overcompensating for his hamstring, ended up wrecking his shoulder, I believe.

He never underwent surgery to repair the damage, and starting the next year (which was a truly dreadful 5-13) Rick adopted a very deliberate doucheworthy pitching style ala Steve Trachsel.  Of course, Sut wasn't just being a douche.  He had to take the time between pitches, due to the pain in his shoulder.  Eventually he was able to adjust his pitching style, relying on guile rather than heat, and he posted 18 wins and a disputed runner-up Cy Young award in 1987.  His last great Cubs season was the Central Division winning year in 1989, benefitting from some strong run support as he won 16 games.

The pain, along with all the questions from Cubs fans and reports alike, became too much for Sutcliffe.  By the end of his run with us in 1991, he could barely get the ball up to the plate.  His so-called change-up was no longer effective, because it was no slower than his "fastball".  The hardest hit ball I have ever seen a human hit was off of a Sutcliffe pitch in 1991.  Howard Johnson, then with the Mets hitting lefty against Sut, hit a ball that CLEARED the rooftop of the building on Sheffield just to the right of the right-field foulpole.  The umpire called the ball foul, although I never could figure out how blue could possibly SEE the ball, let alone rule on its fairness or foulness.  It was definitely angling towards foul territory, because it was pulled so hard.  As I recall, Sut decided to 'unintentionally' walk Johnson, gave up a couple more hard knocks, including a homer that stayed fair, and called it a day, and pretty much a career, with us.

By that time, Dallas Green was gone, and I don't remember where the Jim Frey GM era ended and the Larry Himes GM era began, but I do recall that management's decision to not offer Sutcliffe a contract for the 1992 season made economic sense, although it wasn't exactly compassionate.  I'm sure by that point in his life, Sut's shoulder probably resembled a nice plate of Famous Dave's pulled pork.  It has to be considered a credit to his competitive nature alone that he was able to win 16 games for the Orioles in 1992, then 10 more for them the next year.  Yes, he ended his career with the Satanic Fowl, but I don't think anyone else was willing to issue a uniform to a man with shredded wheat for a shoulder at that time. 

He has gone on to quite the spicy career as a color man at various levels of baseball broadcasting.  It would seem a natural for him to be part of the booth at Wrigley, because I don't believe there are hard feelings as there once was for his friend and fellow broadcaster Mark Grace.  It always seems to be a matter of poor timing.  When Harry Caray passed away, for example, it would have been a great time for him to join up here, but instead Cubs management gave us the Chipster.  Then when the Chipster and Stony left during the Great Meltdown of 2004, Sut was (at least) informally asked about the job, but he cited current committments and whether or not he really wanted a "full-time" announcer gig. 

Sut's had some health issues, and a few other job-related issues as well over the years, but we personally have no gripe with anything he's offered for public consumption.  In fact, my dream Cubs announcing team is Sut and Gracie, talkin' slump-busting and trips to the mound by Billy Connors.  When you consider that Bob Brenly is still willing to pursue a management role, and that Ron Santo is always a dropped pop-fly away from a "stress-related work stoppage", perhaps we'll get Sut on our side again after all, and soon.

Kurt's Take
There was a quote I read somewhere back when Rick Sutcliffe finally called it a day after 1994.  I wish I could find it now to present it accurrately, but when asked about which team he associated his career with the most, Rick Sutcliffe once said the following:

I'm a Cub.  Yeah, that's me.

And for that reason above all others, beyond the 16-1 1984 season, over the 18 wins for a useless '87 team or the improbably strong pitching in '89, I will always be a Rick Sutcliffe fan.  It's easy for us to be fans of a team but it's rare -- especially in this day and age when free agency reigns and the biggest contract lands the best stars -- for a player to be a fan of the fans, and that's what happened with Sutcliffe.

As a kid, I admired him above all other Cub pitchers.  He stood out as the clubhouse prankster, the red-bearded baron who loomed over everybody else, and I still remember proclaiming very loudly in the pages of Goat Riders version 1.0* that he would win the Cy Young Award in 1990, not knowing that he was pretty well done and Greg Maddux was the best pitcher I would ever see.

(*That would be the Fourth Grade School Paper, where yours truly had his own baseball column)

When Sutcliffe signed on with the Orioles it was the first of several betrayals of my childhood.  I just couldn't understand how the Cubs could let him go.  He, who had done so much.  When you're a 12-year-old kid, it doesn't seem so bad to have on your favorite team a 36-year-old pitcher who's made a combined 23 starts the last two seasons.

Like Rob, I miss his character and his attitude.  I think that the Cubs have actually had a number of players like Sutcliffe throughout the years; it's just that they unfortunately didn't all play on the same team the same season.  But for so many reasons, from his epic Cy Young year in 1984 to his near-dismemberment of Eric Show in 1987 for throwing at Andre Dawson and to the simple fact that he idenfities himself as a Cub, Sutcliffe will remain one of the greatest Cubs I ever followed. 

He's a Cub.  Yeah, that's him.

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