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The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #38 Rick Sutcliffe

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Look ahead a few months and pretend it's July 31, 2007.

The Cubs are desperately trying to make a go at the division title, or the wild card, and they figure they need a starting pitcher. But there aren't many available, and it's a seller's market.

And so they send Felix Pie, Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher and Carmen Pignatiello to the Orioles... for Kris Benson, Chris Gomez and Scott Williamson.

Insanity, you'd say. Giving up that much and getting a middling starting pitcher, a backup infielder/first baseman and a middle reliever/setup man?

Jim Hendry would be burned in effigy. Or maybe even not in effigy.

And yet... this is essentially the trade the Cubs made on the trading deadline of June 15, 1984 (in those years, the deadline was earlier than the present day's July 31). They traded a highly regarded #1 draft pick (Joe Carter), a young up-and-coming outfielder with power and speed (Mel Hall), a former #1 draft pick pitcher (Don Schulze), and another pitching prospect (Darryl Banks) to the Cleveland Indians.

And in return, they got a backup catcher/first baseman (Ron Hassey) and a middle reliever (George Frazier).

And Rick Sutcliffe.

Cub fans scratched their heads. It was a slightly different time -- the Cubs hadn't been thought of as contenders in 1984, had a poor spring training, but by June 15 were 34-26 and holding on to a precarious half-game lead in the old NL East. Dallas Green had made a bold trade at the end of spring training, acquiring Bob Dernier and Gary Matthews, and only a couple of weeks earlier had pried another starting pitcher out of the American League, Dennis Eckersley.

Sutcliffe's career up to June 1984 had been checkered at best. Born on June 21, 1956 in suburban Kansas City, he was the Dodgers' #1 draft pick in the 1974 draft. After a couple of brief September callups, he was in the major leagues to stay in 1979 at age 23 -- and promptly won the Rookie of the Year award (an award that many thought was being slanted toward the Dodgers in those days, as Sutcliffe was the first of four straight LA players -- Steve Howe, Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Sax the others -- to win from 1979-82) with a fine 17-10, 3.46 season.

By the following year, he had landed in Tommy Lasorda's doghouse; injured, he went 3-9 with an alarmingly high 5.56 ERA and wound up in the Dodgers' bullpen. The next year, the 1981 strike year, wasn't much better -- he started only six games, appeared in only 8 others, and when Lasorda left him off the Dodgers' postseason roster, he went on a tirade, smashing furniture in Lasorda's office.

As you can imagine, that was his ticket out -- and in the early 1980's, there was no worse baseball Siberia than Cleveland. The Indians played in a crappy cavern of a stadium in front of small clumps of disinterested fans (well, except for the guy with the drum, who still pounds into your head at the Jake), and the Dodgers sent Jack Perconte and Sutcliffe to the Mistake by the Lake, in exchange for -- well, nothing much: Jorge Orta, Larry White and Jack Fimple.

Sutcliffe responded with a 14-8, 2.96 season that landed him fifth place in the 1982 AL Cy Young voting. Hardly anyone noticed -- the Indians finished last in the AL East and drew 1,044,021 fans, 13th of the 14 AL teams. Rick had a 17-11 year in 1983 despite a much-higher 4.29 ERA, for a 92-loss team that again finished last, in front of even fewer people -- 768,941 paid, last in the AL. It was as if he had ceased to exist, in a baseball sense.

And when he started 1984 with a 4-5, 5.15 record with awful peripheral stats (111 hits in 94.1 IP, only 58 strikeouts and a 1.66 WHIP), the Indians were only too happy to take Dallas Green's call and ship him to the north side.

Yes, it would be just about like acquiring Kris Benson in 2007.

Now, mind you, I'm not advocating that, nor would I think that Kris Benson would accomplish anything close to what Rick Sutcliffe did when he hit the mound running at Wrigley Field. Before that, he threw a 4-3 CG win against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Five days later, the day after the famous "Sandberg Game", Sutcliffe started against the Cardinals, the crowd still buzzing from the day before's heroics.

I will never forget that game. It was as if he had been reborn, and in a baseball sense, that was absolutely true. He threw a five-hit, one-walk, fourteen-strikeout shutout, one of the most dominant games any Cub threw in the 1980's. In only one appearance, he had become a fan favorite.

His next appearance was against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. He was probably just a little too pumped to try to prove Tommy Lasorda wrong, and the Dodgers pounded him -- eight hits and seven runs in four innings. We could have been forgiven if we'd have thought the shutout was an aberration, that we were getting the lousy Sutcliffe who had stunk up the first third of the season in Cleveland.

How wrong we'd have been. That was the last game Rick Sutcliffe lost during 1984 -- well, at least in the regular season. He made seventeen more starts, and his record in them was 14-0, with three no-decisions (the Cubs were 2-1 in those games). All told, in his 20 Cub starts, he was 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA, and he won the Cy Young Award, becoming only the second pitcher in major league history to win twenty games in a season combined between two teams. The other, of course, was Hank Borowy, profiled earlier in this series, who also led the Cubs to the postseason. (Since then, Bartolo Colon has joined these two, winning ten games for both the Expos and Indians in 2002, for a similar 20-win season.) On September 3, he bettered that 14-K game with fifteen strikeouts -- in only eight innings -- at Philadelphia, though this was one of the no-decisions (the Cubs eventually won in 12).

The party continued into the playoffs, as Sutcliffe threw seven innings of five-hit shutout ball in game one of the NLCS, and hit a tremendous home run that flew right over my head onto Sheffield Avenue.

And that's where the 1984 story should end, happily, but, unfortunately, doesn't. There were endless debates about whether Jim Frey should have started Rick in game four of the NLCS, on three days' rest, and put the series away right there. He didn't, preferring to hold him back for game five. You all know what happened, and so I won't belabor the pain any further.

It should have been the beginning, as a different "Rick" said in a famous old movie saying, of a beautiful friendship. Rick Sutcliffe was 28 years old, coming off the year of his life, and signed what was then considered to be an outrageously large contract (many thought he'd leave the Cubs to play for his hometown Royals -- not as odd as that sounds now, as KC was the defending AL West champion and would go on to win the World Series in 1985) to stay, and we all figured we'd have an ace of the staff for several years to come.

It all came crashing to an end on May 19, 1985. Rick had to leave that game in Atlanta on, of all things, an injury suffered while running the bases (Eckersley was sent in to run for him). At the time he was 5-4 with a 2.32 ERA and the club was 21-13, only 2 games out of first place. He tried to come back for several starts in June, threw reasonably well but then got hurt again, as did the entire starting rotation, dooming any '85 playoff hopes. Finally, after he left a start on July 28, he was pretty much done for the year, coming back in late September when things were far past done for the ballclub.

1986 was worse -- 5-14 with an ERA north of 5, and it looked like Cleveland all over again.

But the '87 season looked a lot like '84 for Rick -- unfortunately, not for the team, as the Cubs finished last, but Andre Dawson won the MVP and Sutcliffe should have won the Cy Young Award; he was edged out by two points (57-55) by reliever Steve Bedrosian, whose sole qualification was this: "forty saves". Sutcliffe led the league in wins with 18 (until 2006, this was the lowest total for any league leader in wins in a non-strike season), had a decent 3.68 ERA (that was an aberrational hitters' year), and looked like he had recovered his '84 form.

He never really got there. He was 13-14 for the mediocre 1988 Cubs, and 16-11 for the division champions in 1989, though he wasn't even the best pitcher on the staff (both Greg Maddux and Mike Bielecki had better years). The Cubs lost his only start in the 1989 NLCS, though it wasn't his fault -- that was the famous Zimmer/Lancaster screw-up-the-count game.

And then Rick got hurt again in 1990, making only five starts. He came back briefly early in 1991 only to miss a big chunk of the middle of the season, and though he finished well (lowering a midyear 6.75 ERA to 4.10 by season's end), he was 35, and GM Larry Himes thought it best to let him go. He signed as a free agent with the Orioles -- where he proceeded to have a decent 16-15 season, a full uninjured year (36 starts), although with a high WHIP (1.37) and ERA (4.47). Two years later, after a short stint with the Cardinals, Rick retired, having won 171 games in his career, his 82 wins ranking him 26th on the Cub all-time list. He struck out 909 as a Cub, 13th most all-time.

But it's not those numbers we'll remember him for. It's those sixteen wins, propelling the Cubs into the postseason for the first time in 39 years. It's the beard that got him nicknamed "The Red Baron", the hesitation in his windup, the curling of the baseball behind the big number forty on his back (as seen in the photo at the top of this post), the memories of a championship season, and that's why he ranks as high as he does on this list.

Since retirement Rick has worked part-time for the Padres as a pitching coach in spring training and with their minor leaguers, and also as an ESPN and Padres broadcaster. In the course of doing that job last May, he appeared on the air during a Padres telecast apparently after having had too much to drink, and his giggly words wound up on YouTube (though, in searching for that to post here, it appears MLB has forced YouTube to pull the video for copyright violations -- a transcript appears here, and you can hear an audio clip (which includes some local SD sports radio commentary) here [will open a new browser window and may open Windows Media Player depending on your configuration]). He later apologized, and that incident doesn't tarnish the good on-air work Sutcliffe has done, nor the memories of the good things he brought to us in the magical season of 1984.

Rick Sutcliffe's career stats at baseball-reference.com