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.
"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."