ST. LOUIS -- It can't be the numbers. Rick Sutcliffe finished the 1993 season with a 5.75 ERA, and it was higher than that when he took the mound last night against the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium.
It can't be the fastball. Sutcliffe doesn't have anything near the velocity that made him one of the game's most overpowering pitchers in the early 1980s.
It can't be much fun, knowing that everyone thinks you're just hanging on.
Sutcliffe ponders that question, then tries to put the final stage of a successful career in perspective. He has dodged his share of line drives in the past few years, but he never has dodged a tough question.
"I know I'm not contending for the Cy Young," he said, "and I'm not going to win any more ERA titles, but the past two years, I won 26 games and averaged 200 innings. I've got some work to do, but I'm going to win my 13 to 15 games this year and I'm going to get my 200 innings."
That is going to be a tall order, considering the way the first half of the season has gone. Sutcliffe signed with the St. Louis Cardinals last winter and won a spot in the starting rotation, but a severe hamstring injury cost him a month's worth of starts and nearly ended his career.
Now, he is healthy and -- despite the 6.10 ERA -- will take a winning record (5-3) into the break. He is hoping that a strong second half will keep him in the rotation and help the Cardinals get over the top in the balanced National League Central, but he will have to be far more consistent to make his on-field contribution match his positive influence in the clubhouse.
But back to the original question. Sutcliffe, at 38, has had a successful
career. He has enough money to live comfortably the rest of his life. He could go home to Kansas City and never give up another home run. He could join former teammate Ryne Sandberg on the golf course. Why do some guys hang it up early (such as Sandberg) and why do others try to push the game into overtime when the clock appears to be running out?
"With Ryno, he felt like he didn't have the desire or ability to contribute the way he wanted to anymore," Sutcliffe said. "As long as I feel I can help, I want to keep playing.
"You know me. They're going to have to take this uniform away from me. I know that day will come."
It almost came a few weeks ago, when Sutcliffe was sent to Triple-A Louisville on an injury rehabilitation assignment and pitched poorly in his first two starts. When he returned to St. Louis, he was summoned to the manager's office, where he had every reason to expect that Joe Torre would be waiting with a waiver form.
"I think a lot of people would have turned the page at that point and said, 'We tried it, and now we're going to try something else,' " Sutcliffe said. "I blow a hammy and get blistered in two rehab games. When I got back, I was prepared for him to say,
'Thanks, but no thanks.' "
Instead, Torre gave him one more chance. Go back to Louisville and start one more game, he said, then we'll see. That start went well enough to justify a return to the major-league rotation, where Sutcliffe has had five solid performances and two early-inning blowups.
"He just needs to be more consistent," said pitching coach Joe Coleman. "He came back from the injury and had a real good outing against the Dodgers [7 2/3 innings, no runs], then he didn't pitch well the next time. If he gets a little more consistent, he'll be all right."
The Cardinals have enough talent to compete in the NL Central, but they are an unspectacular club that needs solid production from every corner of the roster. Sutcliffe, in his role as fifth starter, figures to be safe as long as he remains a .500 pitcher.
He has not been much more than that since he came back from a career-threatening shoulder injury to win 16 games for the Orioles in 1992, but there always has been more to his JTC contribution than what shows up in the statistics.
That was why Orioles manager Johnny Oates pushed the front office to sign Sutcliffe in December 1991. Sutcliffe immediately took young starter Ben McDonald under his wing and is credited with helping him realize his vast potential. In St. Louis, Sutcliffe has done much the same with young pitcher Allen Watson. Perhaps that's why Torre cut him so much slack.
Sutcliffe had to cut himself a little slack, too, after his third disabling injury in the past five years.
"When I blew that hamstring, I was just crushed," he said. "I was thinking, 'Here we go again.' I'd had the shoulder in Chicago, the knee last year and now this. But I had worked too hard. I think that's what people don't understand. They don't know how much work you put in during the off-season. I worked too hard to just quit."
Then Sutcliffe smiles and looks ahead to better days.
"It's been a terrible first half," he said. "It's only going to get better."