A roundabout path to immortality for Sutter
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—Less than one-half of one percent of all major league players ever earns membership in the most exclusive club in sports: The Baseball Hall of Fame. And Bruce Sutter, who becomes the newest Hall of Famer when he is officially inducted today at the Clark Sports Center, may have taken the most unusual and circuitous route to baseball immortality.
Sutter is the first pitcher to reach the Hall of Fame without ever starting a major league game. Yet who could have imagined the Hall of Fame was his ultimate destination when he signed with the Cubs as an undrafted free agent for a mere $300 in 1971? And one can safely assume no other Hall of Famer ever reached the crossroads of his career after two professional games, as Sutter did when he suffered an elbow injury in 1972.
“At 19 [years old], you don’t ever think anything is going to end your career,” said Sutter, who paid for the surgery out of his pocket because he was worried the Cubs would cut him if they knew he was hurt. “You always have that confidence that you’ll be OK and you’ll bounce back. But it was an unknown. If I didn’t have it done, I had no chance to pitch.”
Of course, as Cubs and Cardinals fans know, that injury proved to be the start of a dominant career. Following surgery on his elbow, Sutter—his fastball reduced to an eminently hittable 85 mph—learned the split-fingered fastball from Cubs roving minor league pitching coach Fred Martin and turned it into the biggest weapon in baseball.
Sutter recorded 300 saves—third-best in history at the time Sutter threw his final pitch in 1988—won the 1979 NL Cy Young Award for the Cubs, recorded the final out of the 1982 World Series for the Cardinals and went 2-0 with two saves in four All-Star Games. Most impressive of all, he recorded 25 or more saves seven times in eight seasons between 1977 and 1984, during which he threw more than 100 innings in a season four times and recorded an average of 4.87 outs per appearance.
Today, of course, it is unusual for closers to enter the game before the start of the ninth inning. “Our percentage rates—Goose Gossage and mine and Lee [Smith] and Rollie’s [ex-Brewers closer Rollie Fingers]—probably aren’t as good as the guys that are today,” Sutter said during a press conference Saturday. “But you come in with a guy on base, you get a ground ball, you did your job. The tying run would score, you get a blown save. It’s definitely a different kind of save today.
“I never say it’s easy, but it’s easier today to save a game than it was [for him],” Sutter said. “You come in with nobody on base and you’re pitching one inning. Definitely easier than coming in with guys on base and one out in the seventh inning and trying to hold it. But there was nothing better than when you came in and got out of a bases loaded jam with nobody out. I mean, what a feeling it is to get out of that.”
Sutter’s plaque will picture him sporting a Cardinals hat, but he actually played one more season for the Cubs (1976-1980) than the Cardinals (1981-1984). He spent much of Saturday fondly recalling his most memorable moments for the Cubs and Cardinals and marveling at the unique vantage point he had as someone who played on both sides of mid-America’s hottest rivalry.
“Every year, right on the calendar, when you were on the Cubs, you know when you were going to play the Cardinals,” Sutter said. “When you were on the Cardinals, you knew when you were going to play the Cubs.
“We weren’t always playing for first place,” Sutter said the same afternoon the first-place Cardinals lost to the fifth-place Cubs in Chicago. “But we were always playing for bragging rights.”
Sutter said he knew he’d arrived as a closer during his rookie year in 1976, when he and left-hander Darold Knowles were warming up during a game against the Reds. But when the left-handed hitting Joe Morgan—a future Hall of Famer himself—stepped to the plate, Cubs manager Jim Marshall called on Sutter instead of Knowles.
“To me, that defined to me [that] from there on, whenever we had the lead, I was going to be the number one pitcher out there,” Sutter said. “There was no more indecision. When I was warming up, I was going to be the only one going into pitch. When I went into a game, nobody else was warming up. We were either going to win it or lose it with me.”
Sutter said striking out Gorman Thomas to secure the Cardinals’ Game Seven win over the Brewers in 1982 was the defining moment of his career, but he said getting fellow Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt to hit into a 1-2-3 double play to preserve a 2-1 win over the Phillies in late September of that year was one of his most memorable moments. The Cardinals ended up winning the NL East by just three games over the Phillies.
“To me, that was the biggest pitch of the year,” Sutter said.
And for many Cubs fans—and one Hall of Fame player in particular—the most memorable pitches he ever threw as a Cardinal occurred on June 23, 1984, when he gave up a pair of game-tying homers to Ryne Sandberg in the ninth and 10th innings of the Cubs’ dramatic 12-11 comeback victory.
“It was a day where two guys had outstanding days—Willie McGee [who hit for the cycle for the Cardinals] and Ryne Sandberg,” Sutter said. “And one guy didn’t have such a good day. And that was me. Ryne had given me trouble before and I threw two pitches right there in the wheelhouse and he didn’t miss them.”
Sutter’s workload caught up to him shortly after he signed a six-year deal with the Braves following the 1984 season. He underwent shoulder surgery after posting what was then a career-high 4.48 ERA in 1985 but suffered a partial rotator cuff tear in 1986. He missed all of 1987, returned to record 14 saves and a 4.76 ERA in 1988 but retired after completely tearing his rotator cuff in 1989.
Saddened by the sudden end to his career—“I didn’t get to leave the game the way I wanted to, I’d always hoped that I’d get to a point where I could walk away and be happy”—and eager to spend time with his wife and three boys, Sutter, unlike most Hall of Famers, disappeared from baseball. He spent one fitful summer as a Cardinals minor league instructor in 1990 but quit after he found himself thinking of his sons while he was on the road and thinking of his pitchers when he was home.
His time with the Braves forgotten by many and his save totals obliterated by closers who threw far fewer innings than Sutter (he now ranks 20th on the all-time save list), it often feels as if he has been retired far longer than 18 years. And few players have reached the Hall of Fame as methodically as Sutter, who earned induction during his 13th year on the ballot—the longest wait for a player since Bill Terry reached the Hall during his 14th year on the ballot in 1954.
As a result, Sutter may be the most low-profile Hall of Famer in memory. He’s certainly the most unassuming: As he left the stage Saturday, Sutter helped security move his own life-size cutout, which was blocking the stairs leading out of the room.
While most Hall of Famers revel in the king-like treatment they receive in the week leading up to their induction, Sutter passed on the annual Hall of Fame golf tournament Saturday in favor of going over his speech as he sat and looked out over Lake Otsego. Instead of staying up late and singing with Hall of Famers Friday night—a traditional rite of passage for incoming inductees—he went to bed early with his ailing wife Jayme, who is battling kidney cancer.
But then again, a quiet entry into immortality is fitting for Sutter, whose career nearly ended before it began and whose desire to pitch as often and as much as possible was rooted in self-preservation. “My first year in the big leagues, I made $17,000,” Sutter said. “It wasn’t hard to go out and find another $17,000 relief pitcher.”
As it turned out, all the Cubs got for $17,000 was a future Hall of Famer.
Jerry Beach covers the Boston Red Sox for Scout.com’s Diehard Magazine and www.diehardmagazine.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-979-0979.