Sutcliffe in '94: O's mates pitch for his return Veteran leadership vital, players say BASEBALL


Rick Sutcliffe won only 10 games and had a 5.75 ERA in 1993. He injured his left knee and suffered through a lengthy slump at a pivotal juncture in the season. He is 37 and it shows, but if it were up to his teammates, he would be one of the first players the Orioles re-sign for next season.

"There's a certain quality that a player brings to a team that can't always be measured by statistics," said outfielder Brady Anderson. "A guy like Rick makes everyone around him better. Also, I think he can win 15 games for us next year."

That opinion may or may not be unanimous, but the most influential players in the clubhouse seem to agree that the team will need Sutcliffe's leadership -- if not his on-field contribution -- to be a serious contender again in 1994.

Shortstop Cal Ripken, who generally is hesitant to involve himself in front-office matters, wasn't reluctant to endorse a third Orioles season for Sutcliffe. The club's two most visible veterans have different approaches to leadership, but they seemed to complement each other in the clubhouse.

"I'd go on record to say that it is very important that Sut come back," Ripken said. "He's made a big contribution all the way around as far as I'm concerned. He's an experienced pitcher who matches up with some of the top pitchers in the league. He takes the pressure off the rest of the guys. He's a great teacher and a great leader. I think he's been tremendous for this club."

The question is whether the front office sees it the same way. Sutcliffe signed a modest one-year contract in 1992 and won 16 games in his first season with the Orioles. Last year, he signed a one-year contract with a base salary of $2 million, got off to an 8-2 start, but slumped badly when he tried to pitch on an injured left knee.

His 1993 contract includes a clause that overrides the club's repeater rights and allows him to become a free agent next month. It also allows other clubs to sign him without being required to compensate the Orioles with a draft choice. In a normal repeater situation, the club would be entitled to offer salary arbitration five days after the end of the World Series and the team would be entitled to compensation if Sutcliffe turned out to be a ranked player.

"We had that in the contract last year and asked them to exercise it then," said Sutcliffe's agent, Barry Axelrod. "It enhances his value if a new team doesn't have to give up anything, and it gives him a leg up on the free agents who have to wait while their old clubs decide whether to offer arbitration."

The Orioles might be hesitant to offer him another guaranteed contract, but that may be the only way to keep Sutcliffe in Baltimore. Despite his age and '93 statistics, his reputation as a competitor and a team leader could make him attractive to a developing team. The Orioles undoubtedly would prefer to offer him a non-roster invitation to spring training, but he figures to get an incentive-based contract from someone.

"I don't know where the club stands," Sutcliffe said from his home in Lee's Summit, Mo. "We have new ownership. I don't know what their thoughts are on bringing me back. I'm down on the ladder a little bit. They have some other decisions to take care of, and I totally understand. To protect ourselves, we've looked at all the possibilities, but you know how I feel about this club. We turned down better offers last year to stay here."

Ben McDonald hopes Sutcliffe sticks around a little longer. He credits Sutcliffe and pitching coach Dick Bosman with helping him develop into one of the most effective pitchers in the American League.

"It's my feeling that he better be back here next year," McDonald said. "People don't know and I can't really explain what he means to me and our team. He's a guy who, if anybody has a problem, they go to Sut. I'd like another year to learn from him and continue the maturing process."

Sutcliffe seemed genuinely touched by the way his Orioles teammates have rallied around him.

"For those guys to say all those things, that's amazing," he said. "It brings tears to my eyes."

Generally, players are not consulted on front-office matters, but they hope that Orioles officials will take into account the contribution Sutcliffe has made as a de facto player/coach when they look toward 1994.

"You have respect for the players, for the player himself and for the other players on the team," general manager Roland Hemond said, "but you still have to arrive at your decision based on what would be best for the ballclub. Everyone knows the respect we have for Rick. It's gratifying that other players also recognize his contribution other than pitching. We also hold him in very high respect."

The positive reviews came from every corner of the clubhouse. McDonald and Mike Mussina from the starting rotation. Anderson and Ripken from the starting lineup. Gregg Olson from the bullpen.

'He has done a lot for this team," Olson said. "It's a tough call [for the club], but I'd like to see him come back. You can write all you want about it, but I don't think everybody knows how important he has been -- to myself, to Ben and Mussina, you can go right down the list."

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