Sutcliffe brings new style, and fastball's not bad either

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here are the Baltimore Orioles: Middle American, slightly old-fashioned, maybe even a little dull.

A dark-haired righthander shows up with a 90-mph fastball and a degree from Stanford. The manager says "gosh" a lot. The superstar shortstop is a spokesman for milk.

Enter the pitcher who played Hollywood, survived Cleveland and starred in Chicago in baseball's longest-running daytime soap opera.

Oh, and he once lent Bruce Springsteen a half-mil. For two days.

His name is Rick Sutcliffe.

It's still spring. His arm might not be able to take a season-long beating. His stuff might look a little different the second time around the American League. But, for one month at least, Sutcliffe has been a revelation, among the best stories in baseball.

He's 35 and confounds hitters with guile and guts mixed with a wicked slider.

But there is more.

He's best buddies with People's former World's Sexiest Man, actor Mark Harmon. And comedian Bill Murray is one of his biggest fans. So is Michael Jordan.

And that Springsteen loan? Just $500,000 between friends, enabling Springsteen to buy Harmon's Beverly Hills house in a hurry.

On Opening Day at Oriole Park, Sutcliffe showed everyone he was bringing a new style to Baltimore. Orioles owner Eli Jacobs invited the president and a gaggle of suspendered politicians from Washington and Annapolis. Sutcliffe gave a ticket to basketball star Charles Barkley.

The president threw out the first ball, low and in the dirt, and took off before Sutcliffe finished a two-hour, two-minute, 2-0 shutout over the Cleveland Indians. Barkley stayed to the finish, wandered into the Orioles locker room, grabbed Sutcliffe and told anyone who would listen: "You've got a good man."

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He sits in the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium, his black-and-orange Orioles warmup jacket buttoned to the collar, his hands surrounding a steaming cup of coffee.

Sutcliffe just has finished trudging along the muddy outfield warning track. He is 6 feet 7, weighs 230 pounds and has thick red hair and a red beard. He could pass for a lumberjack.

He jogs a half-hour each day between starts. He lifts weights. He works. Four out of five days, he's the nicest man in baseball, the easy interview.

On the fifth day, he comes to the clubhouse wearing headphones and a thousand-yard stare. The music is country. The attitude is nasty.

"Look, I'm at this huge crossroads," he said. "I'll go on and play three or four more years, or I'll go home."

For now, he has pitched like a man prepared to play until the mid-1990s. He is 4-2 with three complete games. Not bad for someone whose career was imperiled two years ago by shoulder surgery and who pitched in pain for nearly five years before that.

After spending 7 1/2 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, becoming a national star via cable superstation WGN, Sutcliffe hit the free-agent market last winter. Eight teams bid, but he liked the Orioles best.

Manager Johnny Oates was one of his first big-league catchers. The new ballpark looked a lot like his old home, Wrigley Field. When they pulled the tarp off the field in December and sent Sutcliffe for a look, it was love at first sight.

"Winning has always been my main priority," Sutcliffe said. "I wanted to play for the best team. Winning a world championship is all that is left for me. Winning individual things don't matter for me anyway. I know the pieces of a world championship team are here in Baltimore."

Sutcliffe was brought to Baltimore to pile up innings and wins, to show a young staff how a veteran gets hitters out. He arrived with a 139-110 career record, 64 complete games, a 1984 National League Cy Young Award, a 1982 American League ERA title, a 1979 National League Rookie of the Year award.

But the numbers obscure one of the game's most compelling personalities, born and raised in Independence, Mo., who lives in nearby Lee's Summit with his wife, Robin, and 9-year-old daughter Shelby.

The scenes flash by:

The Dodgers' rookie who won 17 games, who relished the silver screen-meets-Dodger blue atmosphere. Sinatra. The Fonz. Two years and five wins later, it all went bust. Sutcliffe lashed out at L.A. manager Tom Lasorda in the final days of the strike-torn 1981 season. Frustrated after an awful year, concerned about the lack of innings worked, he called the manager for a breach of faith after he failed to get one last start.

"I snapped," Sutcliffe said. "I cleared his desk off. I choked him. I pulled him off the ground. Tommy said to everyone that I was upset I wasn't on the playoff roster. Anyone could see I wasn't going to be on that roster. He lied to me, and I didn't handle it well."

They sent him to baseball Siberia: the Cleveland Indians. But after 2 1/2 seasons and a 35-24 record, he was brought into the heat of a 1984 divisional race in Chicago. He made the Cubs champions of the National League East, roaring to a 14-0 streak down the stretch, winning the clincher with a two-hit shutout over Pittsburgh.

The Cubs never made it to the World Series, and, a month into the 1985 season, Sutcliffe's career would never be the same. A torn hamstring muscle led to a shoulder injury, which led to five years of pain, which led to shoulder surgery, which led to two years of doubt.

Credit the Orioles with doing their homework, though. They scouted him last September, when he went 4-1, and, when he showed up in the free-agent pool, they pounced.

The Orioles liked his pitching, style and sense of community. His charity work through the Rick Sutcliffe Foundation is legendary. He contributes $100,000 a year, plus his shoe and glove endorsement revenue. He buys 50 tickets a year and distributes them to needy children. He establishes scholarships for 20 college students a year.

"My parents were divorced when I was 12, and that had an effect on me," he said. "It's just something I wanted to do. You realize you have some gifts. If you've ever walked into a hospital and seen a kid lying there with leukemia or cystic fibrosis, and then you see the look in the eye when they meet you, you can't help but be touched. I always tell the kids, I have an IOU program. When they get well, all they have to do is call me, and I'll leave them tickets for a game."

The Sutcliffe Rolodex is filled with the names of stars spread across the entertainment and sports industries. They range from country music (Alabama) to the NASCAR circuit (Dale Earnhardt) to rock (Huey Lewis).

"We're all people people," he said. "We like being out. We're just like everyone else. I like to have fun. I like people who can entertain me."

Sutcliffe once threw a bachelor party for Harmon at the Cubs' training complex in Mesa, Ariz.

Harmon, to be wed to actress Pam Dawber, and a few of his friends were met at the airport by a limousine and driver, courtesy of Sutcliffe, and were ushered to the stadium. Sutcliffe distributed gloves and sent the Hollywood crowd to the outfield.

"Rick is hitting fungoes to us and we're standing in this empty park, catching flies," Harmon said. "Three or four balls into it, I turn to someone and say, 'Isn't this great? Isn't this something?' And, at that very moment, Rick signals for the grounds crew guy to turn on the sprinkler system. We got soaked. There was no place to run. That's how the party started."

And it finished about 10 hours later, after a nine-hole golf tournament, a free-throw shooting contest and a car race. The Hollywood guys were stuck in their wet clothes the whole time.

It wasn't until the 1990 All-Star Game in Chicago that Harmon and company got their payback, renting space on a billboard overlooking Wrigley.

The sign said: "Rick Sutcliffe welcomes his friends to Chicago. For tickets, call . . ." It listed Sutcliffe's home number. The accompanying picture was worse: the dreaded high school yearbook photo of Sutcliffe -- clean-shaven.

In the latest episode of Sutcliffe vs. Harmon, the actor got his co-workers on the TV show "Reasonable Doubts" to pitch in. At the end of a scene in which Harmon tells actress Nancy Everhard a mutual friend has died, she turns to the camera and says: "Even dead, he throws harder than Sutcliffe."

Sutcliffe is back. Opening Day was an appetizer. There is still plenty of season left, plenty of time to turn Oriole Park at Camden Yards into something more than just the newest tourist attraction in baseball.

"There is no more disabled list for me," he said. "I can't handle that anymore. I can compete and contribute at this level. I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth."

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