Loyalty And The Red Baron

When Rick Sutcliffe thinks back to the defining moments in his career, he hears a familiar voice again and again. It’s not his or anyone in his family. It’s not from a coach or a teammate; though, Chicago sports fans, especially Cubs fans, know it well. It’s distinctive. The voice cracks and is slurred, like it’s being dragged through wet gravel. It’s lively and radical.

It belongs to Harry Caray, the famed television broadcaster of the Chicago Cubs.

Referring to his auburn hair and beard, Caray famously called Sutcliffe the Red Baron throughout the pitcher’s baseball career. After Sutcliffe was done with baseball and lent his voice to broadcasting, Caray phoned with words of encouragement, telling the Red Baron he’d “be great at this.” But most profoundly, Caray called Sutcliffe the offseason following his Cy Young season in 1984, when, after a mid-season trade, he went 16-1 for the Cubs. Sutcliffe was a twenty-eight-year-old free agent in his prime. A wanted man. He fielded calls from George Steinbrenner, infamous owner of the New York Yankees who told Sutcliffe he’d best any offer that came in; Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta Braves who said he was sending a blank contract; and big shots from his hometown Kansas City Royals who offered him a lifetime deal. They were all no match for Harry.

“It was a phone call from Harry Caray, who said, ‘You can get more years and more money, but it’ll be the biggest regret of your life if you don’t come back to the Cubs, because they’ll always love you,” Sutcliffe said. “It hit me. It hit me hard. My wife and I prayed about it. I called my agent, Barry Axelrod, and said, ‘I need you to meet me in Chicago tomorrow; we’re going to sign with the Cubs.’” He signed a contract that day. For a short while, it made him the highest-paid pitcher in Major League Baseball.

The story is the sturdy cornerstone of Rick Sutcliffe’s days in a Chicago Cubs uniform. Days he still cherishes and that led to his current relationship with Major League Baseball. Sutcliffe played for three other M.L.B. clubs, but today, he still regularly wears the blue and red, whenever he takes off his objective-broadcaster hat. A headlining color broadcaster for ESPN, Sutcliffe co-calls Wednesday Night Baseball and also jumps in the booth for playoff baseball and, at times, other games. He’s been with ESPN for twenty-two years.

He came back to work part-time for the Cubs after Theo Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations, asked him to in 2011. He joins the Cubs each spring training and, at Epstein’s request, speaks with the team’s minor-leaguers each season. Maybe most importantly, at least Harry would think so, Sutcliffe is still a Cubbie fan, cheering on the 2016 team as it marched toward a World Series championship and emphatically celebrating with the organization after the historic win, the team’s first such championship in one hundred eight years. He was one of many legacy Cubs to receive a championship ring.

The family atmosphere cultured by the Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs since 2009, has endeared Sutcliffe, who is reminded of his first M.L.B. team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, then owned by the O’Malley family. “I didn’t know an awful lot about the [Cubs] front office people until Tom and his family took over the team,” Sutcliffe said about the Ricketts family. “It’s like Walter and Peter O’Malley: You see them around the ballpark. They’re fans. They love the team. They treat their employees like family, with respect. It reminds me a lot of what it was when I first started playing pro ball.”

Despite the post-career loyalty to the Cubs, Sutcliffe spent about half his career with other ballclubs, starting with the Dodgers.

Out of Missouri, Sutcliffe was a sought-after three-sport athlete from Van Horn High School. His dream, and plan, was to play college football, preferably in the Big Eight Conference (now the Big 12) for the University of Kansas or Missouri. But when Arizona State University came calling, it looked pretty good to the six-foot-seven quarterback. “That’s the way I was leaning until the Dodgers came in,” Sutcliffe said.

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Sutcliffe in the first round, but they would have to do better than that to top a college-football scholarship and a passion for another sport. So, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Coming from a low-income upbringing, raised by his grandparents in rural Missouri, Sutcliffe had never heard of the kind of money the Dodgers were offering. It could go a long way in his family. The money, however, was an opener. “The next thing they did was come in and offer a college scholarship for not only me, but [they] offered one for my younger brother and sister,” he said. “As you can imagine, it would have been the most selfish thing I ever did to go on and play football somewhere. I got real lucky. I don’t know that football would have turned into anything for me.”

Baseball quickly did. Sutcliffe ate up innings in rookie ball after he was drafted in 1974. Working through the minor leagues the next two years, he went from Bellingham, Washington, to Bakersfield, California, to Waterbury, Connecticut, but made a stop in between—at Dodger Stadium. Though twenty-two games over .500 in 1976, the Dodgers were out of contention, and manager Walter Alston retired with four games to play, making way for his young protégé, Tommy Lasorda. Alston had one more move as skipper—to bring up “the kid.” That was Sutcliffe. “Tommy Lasorda’s first game managing I was the starting pitcher in that game,” Sutcliffe said. “On a good night in Waterbury, we might see five hundred people in the stands, and I’m out there that night in front of fifty thousand people. It was kind of crazy. Everything happened so quick. It was almost too good to believe. It was almost better than any dream a kid could have.”

Sutcliffe allowed no runs on two hits in five innings in his debut. His 1977 season was mostly lost to injury, and in 1978, he got back on track in the minors and then returned to the Dodgers to finish up the season. In 1979, he made the team out of spring training as a big arm out of the bullpen, but when L.A. starter Burt Hooton missed a start with the flu, Sutcliffe stepped in and tossed a complete-game win against Hall-of-Fame Philly Steve Carlton. That earned him a start five days later, and for the next sixteen years. That first year he cruised to a 17-10 record and a Rookie of the Year award.

He fought through ups and downs and injuries with the Dodgers before being traded to the Cleveland Indians before the 1982 season. That season, he filed the best full-season ERA of his career at 2.96, the best in the American League. He was an All-Star the following season, and in 1984, toiled through a tough start before being dealt mid-season to a playoff-starved National League club with big hopes.

The Cubs wanted the trade plus an immediate contract extension. Sutcliffe wouldn’t agree to that. It didn’t matter. “I said, ‘Dallas (Green, former Cubs general manager), I can’t do that,” he recalled. “‘I gotta be honest: My dream at the end of this year is to go back home and play for my hometown team, the Kansas City Royals. Bert Blyleven is the one who wants to be traded.’ And quote unquote, Dallas says, ‘I don’t fucking want Blyleven. I want you.’ And he hung up.

“An hour later I was told I was traded.”

What ensued was one of the most storied pitching stretches in baseball history. Sutcliffe went 16-1 in twenty starts for the Cubs, leading them to a National League pennant. It was monumental for the Cubs, the lovable losers who hadn’t seen the playoffs in four decades. This was, however, long before the internet, let alone social media. Information wasn’t pouring nonstop from innumerable outlets. A clueless Sutcliffe learned Cubs’ lore the old-fashioned way. “This one night, I see these fans holding up a sign that said, ‘39 years of suffering is enough.’ I didn’t know what it meant,” he said. “As I walked in, I reached over to hand a baseball to the young boy that was there, and his dad was there, and I said, ‘What does this sign mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, we have not been to the playoffs in thirty-nine years.’ I didn’t say it to be cocky or anything, but I said, ‘You might want to hold on to this baseball because we’re going to get it done tonight.’”

One drought was broken that night, with much thanks to Sutcliffe’s complete game. The other drought, the World Series one, would have to wait. The Cubs bested the San Diego Padres the first two games of the 1984 National League Divisional Series, but the Padres swept the final three games at home to oust Sutcliffe and the Cubs. It was the closest Sutcliffe would get to the World Series.

Rick Sutcliffe pitched for the Chicago Cubs through most of the nineteen eighties, leading them to two playoff appearances. (Photo by Joe FaraonI/ESPN Images)

But after that season, anything was possible, especially for Sutcliffe, who was the most coveted free agent in Major League Baseball. As previously mentioned, though, Harry Caray swooped in to save the day, relaying to Sutcliffe what being a Cub is all about. “His phone call meant a lot more to me than any of the other phone calls, because he was speaking from his heart, and the other guys were just looking at a Cy Young Award winner,” Sutcliffe said. “I think Harry was not only talking to me about the team that I needed to be on, but he was talking about me as a person. It wasn’t about me as a player. It was me as a human being and how the right thing to do would be to come back to Chicago.

“I said many, many times how grateful I was to him, because to this day, it’s still one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me. My whole life changed. You take the first month I was in Chicago and look at the fan mail I got that first month, it was more than what I had for the first six years of playing for the Dodgers and Orioles combined. It was amazing how the country really became excited about the 1984 club.”

Sutcliffe was mostly an ace through the nineteen eighties, while the Cubs mostly wrestled with mediocrity, never winning fewer than seventy games, but never winning more than seventy-seven. Until 1989.

Sutcliffe was an All-Star for Chicago in 1987, when he led the league with eighteen wins, and in 1989, when the Cubs again made the playoffs after ninety-three victories. But, again, the Cubbies fell short, losing four games to one to the San Francisco Giants. That 1989 team, though featuring Hall-of-Fame players Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg, and Andre Dawson, was inferior to the 1984 squad, according to Sutcliffe, who said manager Don Zimmer had plenty to do with the ’89 team’s results: “In my mind, he did things that helped us win twenty-five to thirty more games than we would have won if he weren’t there.”

Sutcliffe then got hurt, tearing the labrum in his throwing arm, and missed most of 1990 and 1991. While he pitched in 1992, he said he didn’t feel right until late in the season. But the Cubs, or at least one member of the organization, was through with the Red Baron. After that season, despite making a plea in regard to his health, Sutcliffe was sent to the Baltimore Orioles, for whom he pitched nearly two hundred forty innings and won sixteen games in his first season.

Being dismissed from Chicago hurt, but Sutcliffe doesn’t hold a grudge. He said it was “one man’s opinion” and it was the same man, Larry Himes, who didn’t want to pay four-time Cy Young-winner (three with the Atlanta Braves) Greg Maddux. Playing baseball for nine years in front of an always energetic and capacity crowd at Wrigley Field was a blessing for Sutcliffe. “They talk about the dog days and how it’s tough to get motivated. It was never a problem getting motivated during the time I played for the Cubs, because you knew the ballpark was going to be packed,” he said. “Whether you are tired or hurt, you completely forget about all that. It’s so easy to play when the stadium is full.

“It was like more than a baseball game; it was something that would be on a bucket list or a dream for somebody. And you knew there were a lot of people in those stands who had never been there before and might never get back. You just wanted to make sure you did everything you could to enhance their experience that day.”

After two years in Baltimore and one final run with the St. Louis Cardinals, Sutcliffe hung ’em up. He pitched, at least parts of, eighteen seasons in the big leagues, winning one hundred seventy-one games, losing one hundred thirty-nine, to go with a 4.08 earned-run average. He was a three-time All-Star, and owns one Rookie of the Year and one Cy Young trophy.

Looking for the next adventure, after taking a year off, Sutcliffe weighed his options. With a reputation as a crafty and articulate ballplayer, he had his choice. He could coach, eventually manage, a pro ballclub or he could move upstairs to the broadcast booth. But first thing was first: family.

Rick and wife Robin raised one daughter, Shelby, who eventually married a California minister named Hunter. When the couple gave birth to Ryder, Rick’s life changed. “Anybody who has a grandson knows what I’m talking about. My number one priority right now is being with that guy, Ryder,” he said.

Wrapping a career around that was necessary for Sutcliffe. Managing, whether it be a major league team or in the minors, wouldn’t afford that kind of free time. But low-level coaching would, and that’s where he started. Unhindered by the dismissal five years prior, Sutcliffe called the Cubs, only to find out there wasn’t a job for him. So, he went nearby, to the Padres, who had Sutcliffe coaching their Rookie League pitchers. That same year, 1995, Sutcliffe called his first baseball game from the broadcast booth, a weekend series for the Padres. He did a few more games, and near the end of the season, he received a call from ESPN, offering a radio broadcast job for Major League Baseball’s postseason.

Early in Sutcliffe’s career, Hall-of-Fame pitcher Don Drysdale told him he was going to broadcast after his playing days. Drysdale was Sutcliffe’s mentor and a father figure. Couple that with Harry Caray’s words of encouragement after his final season, and Sutcliffe knew where he belonged. “Twenty-two years later, I still work for ESPN,” he said.

Sutcliffe keeps his workload light, coloring ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball series and occasionally pitching in elsewhere, so he can maximize his time with family. At home in San Diego, Sutcliffe and his clan are led by Ryder, who “dictates what we do every day,” whether that be at the beach, LEGOland, the park, or the library. When possible, Ryder goes where Sutcliffe goes, too, and in the fall of 2016, that was Wrigleyville in Chicago for the Cubs’ first World Series games since 1908. The Cubs administration was “kind enough,” he said, to fly the entire family to Chicago for World Series week.

Ryder was quick to get in on the fun. Sutcliffe and fellow former Cub Ryne Sandberg kicked off a 5K while they were in Wrigleyville and, “I got up and spoke on stage to the several hundred people there,” Sutcliffe told. “All of the sudden I see Ryder off the side and he’s looking at me like, ‘Grandpa, I’m here, I’m your best buddy. How come I’m not up there?’ So I brought him on stage and said, ‘This is my grandson, Ryder. Ryder, say hello everybody.’ And in his little bitty, four-year-old voice he goes, ‘Hello everybody.’ And I go, ‘Hey Chicago whadda ya say?’ And Ryder said, ‘The Cubs are gonna win today,’ and the whole crowd went absolutely nuts. We have that to remember for the rest of our lives.”

Just another unforgettable moment between Sutcliffe and the Cubs, and in hopes for more, Sutcliffe has the entire month of October blocked off on his calendar. “I’m hoping to be on the North Side of Chicago for most of that month,” he said.

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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