SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
September 17, 1979
When Chicago requires late-inning help, out of the bullpen comes Bruce Sutter, whose unique "split-fingered fastball" has made him the most effective relief pitcher in the game
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September 17, 1979

This Pitch In Time Saves Nine

When Chicago requires late-inning help, out of the bullpen comes Bruce Sutter, whose unique "split-fingered fastball" has made him the most effective relief pitcher in the game

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This has been the healthiest and, in many ways, the most restful of Sutter's three-plus seasons in the major leagues. In 1977, he had 22 saves by the first week of July, along with 87 strikeouts in 74 innings and an earned run average of less than 1.00. But he strained a muscle in his side, sat out two weeks, missed the All-Star Game and was placed on the disabled list in August. He still finished with 31 saves and a 1.35 ERA. Last year it was said that, as the Cubs' only dependable reliever, he wilted from overwork in August and September. Sutter denies this, insisting that it was just a late slump. Slump or not, he still had 27 saves and 106 strikeouts in 99 innings and, as he did this year, got the win in the All-Star Game. But his ERA climbed to 3.18, well above his career 2.24.

This season he has benefited from the addition to the Cubs' bullpen of Dick Tidrow, who was obtained in a May trade with the Yankees. Tidrow has given Franks a strong long reliever to go with his incomparable short man. With these two in the wings, Cub starters rarely finish games—they have only 17 complete games—but as one of them, Lynn McGlothen, says, "We can go all out after the sixth inning, knowing there is help out there. Herman just tells us to go as hard as we can for six or seven innings." Should trouble arise early, Tidrow is at the ready, and Sutter is on hand for the mop-up. Sutter's assignment is to hold the opposition if the score is tied or if the Cubs have a narrow lead. He rarely enters a game with his team behind, and when he does, as he did last Wednesday in a 4-3 loss to the Expos, he is as startled as Lord Olivier might be if asked to appear opposite Miss Piggy.

"I thought I'd come in one hitter earlier [when the score was still tied]," he said, after having arrived on the scene with two outs in the ninth. Gary Carter, the only hitter he faced, grounded out to end the inning. It isn't the fault of Sutter or Tidrow that the Cubs, contenders for most of the season, fell into an early September slump.

Sutter is effusive in praise of Tidrow, the man who has spared him overwork and allowed him to be used where he can do the most good. "This is still a team game, despite the individual statistics," he says, "and I wouldn't have 35 saves without Dick Tidrow."

In his present enviable situation, Sutter believes he enjoys an almost unfair advantage over the hitters he faces. As a short reliever, he rarely confronts the same man twice in a game, which means most batters have only one chance to solve the riddle of the split-fingered fastball. Considering the vagaries of today's scheduling, a batter might see Sutter's pitch in June and not again until August, when time has mercifully clouded the memory of it. As a one-pitch pitcher, he is, he says, spared the agonizing reappraisals that those with more varied repertoires endure. "I don't second-guess myself," he says. "If somebody gets a hit, I don't stand there thinking maybe I should have thrown him a slider." And as a late-inning man, he sees an unusual number of pinch hitters, unfortunates for whom he professes the most profound sympathy. "The pinch hitter is stiff," Sutter says. "He hasn't seen a ball all night. He might not have hit in two weeks. He's in a pressure situation. Maybe he has to go for the long ball. I'm in there more often than he is. It's awfully tough on him."

Sutter has not always been in position to afford the luxury of such magnanimous sentiments. A three-sport star at Donegal High School in Mount Joy, Pa., which is about 70 miles west of Philadelphia, he was drafted after graduation in 1970 by the Washington Senators. But—apparently to the Senators' surprise—he had just turned 17, and "because the rules prohibited them from talking to me until I was 18, they never made a true offer." So Sutter enrolled in Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He visited academe just long enough to learn that "I couldn't get into the studying part of it." Then he went home and started playing with the semiprofessional Hippey's Raiders of Lancaster, Pa. There he was discovered by Cub scout Ralph DiLullo and signed as a free agent for the princely bonus of $500. In 1972 he pitched in only five innings in four games for Bradenton in the rookie Gulf Coast League before his arm gave out. In his naiveté, Sutter refrained from telling the Cubs of the seriousness of his injury, fearful they would regard him as a helpless cripple and send him packing. In January of 1973 he underwent surgery at his own expense for a pinched nerve in his right elbow.

He had been a fastball-curveball pitcher until then, but at the start of the 1973 season he felt obliged to inform his employers that he could no longer throw hard. It was then that Sutter fell under the protective wing, as it were, of Fred Martin, the Cubs' minor league pitching instructor that year. All Martin did was show him how to throw the pitch that would make him rich and famous. "He [Martin] had used it in the minors as a change of speed," says Sutter. "For me, it was a necessity." Struggling to control the new pitch during the early portion of the '73 season, Sutter had an ERA of "six something" for Quincy, the Cubs' Class A farm. He finished at 4.13, and three years later he was in the big leagues. Martin, who died earlier this year, was, for young Sutter, "like a second father."

His actual father, Howard, a retired accountant, is credited with both teaching him how to play baseball and cultivating in him an equanimous approach to life. Sutter is tall and lanky, and were it not for a rather scraggly Fu Manchu mustache, he would have the aspect of a young Jimmy Stewart. The look fits his easygoing nature. "You won't see me mad out there," he says. "Looking at me, you won't be able to tell if I'm pitching bad or good. I know I'm not going to be good all the time. As long as I know everyone's trying, I can't get upset. That's the way my dad is. He's a low-keyed person. He never got upset, and he had six kids."

Sutter's vaunted cool was sorely tested as he departed Wrigley Field one day last week. As he maneuvered his car from the players' parking lot, heading for the home he shares with his wife and two sons in Arlington Heights, he was pursued down the busy street by swarms of children in a scene vaguely reminiscent of Sebastian Venable's flight from the cannibalistic youngsters in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. As their number increased, Sutter feared his followers might be injured, so he pulled over and rolled down his window. "O.K., I don't want to see any of you guys killed, so let's have 'em." The kids pressed upon him programs, baseballs and strips of paper, which he dutifully signed. When the last boy shot an open palm through the open window, Sutter seemed confused. Was he to sign the bare flesh? Would the kid ever wash that hand again? "Naw, man," the boy finally said, "I don't want your autograph. I just want to shake the hand of Bruce Sutter." Sutter cheerfully obliged and then drove off, as the youngsters retreated in search of new prey.

Sutter did not drive far. He pulled into a parking lot a block away in front of the Muenchner-Hof restaurant on North Clark Street. "I don't think anyone saw us," the slightly shaken Sutter advised a companion. "I just didn't want those kids to get hurt in the street chasing me over here. Let's go in for a quick beer." A cool one well earned.

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