Schmuck: Rick Sutcliffe looks back at being chosen to pitch Camden Yards opener

Rick Sutcliffe had never given a thought to being the first guy to start a regular-season game at the brand-new, old-school ballpark that had just sprung up near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

No way he was jumping to the bruising American League East at such a late stage in his career. No way he was going to sign up for a steady diet of fence-busting designated hitters at a throwback bandbox that was — in some ways — cozier than Wrigley Field, where he had spent the previous eight seasons.

Sutcliffe only entertained the notion of signing with the Orioles in December 1991, at age 35, because of his long friendship with former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Johnny Oates, who was preparing for his first full year as O's manager. Oates had a secret plan to make the debut season of Oriole Park at Camden Yards more successful than anyone could imagine.

"Johnny called and told me, 'I told the Orioles that all I want for Christmas this year is you,'" Sutcliffe said recently. "And I, literally, at that time was trying to work out a way of getting back with the Cubs. To be honest, it wasn't going real well."

Still, the whole DH thing didn't make a lot of sense to a guy who was trying to come back from a couple of years of arm problems and didn't figure to have too many years left no matter where he ended up.

"The only reason I flew to Baltimore and I had my agent [Barry Axelrod] go with me was just out of respect and the friendship I had with Johnny," Sutcliffe said. "I had no intention of signing with the Orioles."

This is where the story gets a little bit magical. Oates, Orioles president Larry Lucchino and some other club officials took Sutcliffe and Axelrod on a tour of the new ballpark, during which the charisma of Camden Yards and the covert plan hatched by Oates changed everything.

"So, we're back there and Johnny separated me from Lucchino and everybody else and walked me out to the mound," Sutcliffe remembers, "and he says, 'You can't tell anybody, but you're going to throw the very first pitch ever in this ballpark.'

"I don't know what it was, but all of the sudden my hair stood up, the goose bumps hit and I just all of the sudden went, 'Wow, this place is beautiful.' It was state-of-the-art. It was something I had never really seen before. As we walked off, I went over to Barry and said, 'This is where I want to play.' He kind of looked at me like, 'What did Johnny just say to you?' But I couldn't say anything. That was the determining factor for me signing with the Orioles."

Everyone knows what happened next. Sutcliffe pitched the opener and threw a five-hit shutout, beating Cleveland, 2-0, in a classic pitching duel with Indians ace Charles Nagy. That game is now remembered — for obvious reasons — as one of the greatest games in Orioles history, but there's a lot more to the story.

Sutcliffe went to spring training and got a good look at budding Orioles ace Mike Mussina and started to have second thoughts about how much he deserved to be the Opening Day starter on such a historic day. After all, he was three years removed from his last healthy season and the Orioles rotation featured two of the most promising young pitchers in the game.

"We get to spring training and there's about 10 days to go or something," Sutcliffe said. "I had one start left before the opener and Johnny hadn't announced [the Opening Day starter] yet. I went in to Johnny and I said, 'Hey Johnny, you're making a mistake. Mussina's better than me. You need to start him on Opening Day.' And Johnny said, 'Well, Ben McDonald's better than you, too.'

"We started laughing and he goes, 'That's not my point. I'm pitching you on Opening Day because I know that against every other No. 1 starter you can hold your own. For us to get to over .500, it's going to come down to those two guys, so that's why I'm going to line them up against everyone else's three and four and we'll dominate.'"

The plan would work pretty well. Sutcliffe won 16 games that year, Mussina broke out with an 18-5 season that launched him on a career that should someday put him in the Hall of Fame, and McDonald also had a decent year. The Orioles, who had finished in sixth place and 28 games under .500 in 1991, were just a half-game behind the eventual world champion Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 5 and finished with 89 victories in 1992.

That Opening Day, however, wasn't all sunshine and confetti. Sutcliffe had one more obstacle to overcome before his historic performance.

"It was kind of iffy," he said. "We played that exhibition game two days before the opener down at RFK Stadium and after batting practice there was this huge submarine sandwich that was there and there were like eight or 10 of us who came down with food poisoning from eating that. Cal Ripken Sr. almost wasn't able to coach third base that day. He had something like a 104 fever."

Rick and Robin Sutcliffe spent the night before the opener nearby at the home of former Cubs teammate Mike Bielecki, a Baltimore native, and there was a point when Rick looked so green that Axelrod advised Robin to call Oates to tell him her husband would not be able to pitch.

"Robin looked at him and said, 'If he's breathing, he's going to pitch,'" Sutcliffe said.

Sutcliffe was still queasy the next morning, but he took the mound and delivered an efficient 110-pitch performance in which he faced just five batters over the minimum and finished with a flourish, striking out Indians first baseman Paul Sorrento to complete the shutout.

"I got to the ballpark and I actually threw up right before I went out," Sutcliffe said. "I think some people thought it was because of nerves or something, but it had nothing to do with nerves. I just wasn't feeling well.

"I got lucky. If you remember, it was cool. It was overcast. I knew I wasn't going to be able to last very long. I put a huge emphasis on pitching to contact. I didn't want to strike anybody out until the last hitter. You know how that goes. You know what the crowd wants and you try to give them exactly what they're looking for."

Which is exactly what he did.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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