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The Trade That Made The Cubs
John Garrity
September 03, 1984
Chicago was gambling when it got Rick Sutcliffe from Cleveland, but the deal may have won the pennant
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September 03, 1984

The Trade That Made The Cubs

Chicago was gambling when it got Rick Sutcliffe from Cleveland, but the deal may have won the pennant

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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.

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