Bruce Sutter, RIP: Like skipping a rock

Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter with the Cardinals en route their 1982 World Series winner.

“It’s unhittable,” said Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams about Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter’s split-finger fastball, “unless he hangs it, and he never does. It’s worse than trying to hit a knuckleball.” Another Hall of Fame manager, Whitey Herzog, has said that Sutter would never have become injured if he’d remained a Cardinal.

Sutter, who died of cancer Thursday at 69, became a Cardinal in the first place, in 1980, because the Cubs with whom he’d arisen to become a groundbreaking relief pitcher in the first place got caught flatfoot, when the combination of salary arbitration and free agency smashed into a grave if unintended error by longtime owner Phil Wrigley.

The elder Wrigley’s mistake, according to Peter Golenbock in Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs, was leaving half his estate to his wife, Helen, whose own death meant the Wrigley estate being taxed heavily twice and leaving son William III, who’d inherited the Cubs, strapped for running the team until or unless he could sell it.

In due course, Bill Wrigley’s financial picture would wreak havoc enough on the Cubs. Sutter himself would remember (to Golenbock) the Cubs having a good team or two followed by a disgruntled team full of veterans who came over from established winners and not liking the Cubs’ post-’79 decline.

About 1979, too, the husky righthander remembered, “That was the year . . . we lost a game to the [Phillies], 23-22. You’re going to ask who gave up the last run, aren’t you? It was a Mike Schmidt home run—off me.” Hitting his second bomb of the day, the Hall of Fame third baseman conked one off Sutter and up the left center field bleachers with two out in the top of the ninth. The Cubs—whose own bombardier Dave Kingman hit three out (one onto a Waveland Avenue porch while he was at it)—went down in order in the bottom against former Big Red Machine relief star Rawly Eastwick.

Sutter learned the split-finger fastball from a minor league coach named Fred Martin and rode it to a 2.33 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 3.42 strikeout-to-walk rate, and a 1.05 walks/hits per inning pitched rate as a Cub. He won the National League’s Cy Young Award for 1979 while he was at it. Then he won a $700,000 salary for 1980 in arbitration.

The only relief pitcher never to have started a major league game when inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, Sutter found himself one of the 1980 Cubs’ few leading lights, with a 2.64 ERA and a league-leading 28 saves. He also found himself a Cardinal after that season, after the Cubs under Wrigley’s financial distresses couldn’t pull the trigger on a longer-term deal with deferrable money.

Enter Herzog, who’d only coveted Sutter for half the time Sutter pitched for the Cubs. Only too acutely aware of what happens to even great teams without shutdown relief—he’d been purged as the Royals’ manager after front office disputes trying to get them better relief pitching, before All-Star reliever Dan Quisenberry came into his own—the White Rat, doubling as general manager, brought Sutter to St. Louis for Leon Durham and Ken Reitz plus a spare part named Ty Waller.

Sutter delivered in St. Louis—he nailed down Game Seven of the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series triumph— in large part because Herzog and his then-pitching coach Mike Roarke knew even more than the Cubs how to manage a pitcher whose money pitch just so happened to put arms and shoulders in danger if not handled properly. “[N]obody knew [Sutter’s] motion better than Mike Roarke,”  Herzog wrote in You’re Missin’ a Great Game:

I knew Bruce had to come back behind his ear, then straight over the top, with his delivery. He threw that nasty split-finger pitch, which made the ball look like a rock skipping on water—tough to pick up, let alone hit—but it puts a violent torque on the arm. When you think of the guys who live by that pitch . . . how many had a couple of great years, then dropped off the map?

. . . Well . . . Roarke and I were watching Sutter throw in [spring training] and I saw he was coming kind of three-quarters, bringing the ball out to the side and across. I said, “Holy moly, Mike, he’s all out of whack!” We got right on his ass about it, and he straightened it out. No harm, No foul. Bruce saved a lot of games for us; we saved him more damage than anybody knows.

You know what? If he’d stayed with the Cardinals, Bruce would never have gotten hurt.

Sutter left the Cardinals as a free agent after the 1984 season. Owner Gussie Busch decided to share the top decision making with two Anheuser-Busch leaders, Fred Kuhlmann and Lou Sussman, and they weren’t exactly as amenable to Herzog as Busch himself was, according to Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis.

Herzog swore the pair “jerked” Sutter around over a no-trade clause; second baseman Tommy Herr swore Sussman angered Sutter during their talks. “Bruce wanted to stay in St. Louis,” remembered Herr.

I don’t think the money was that big of a deal. It became more of a personality conflict. Lou Sussman was handling the negotiations for the Cardinals. At some point, Lou rubbed Bruce the wrong way, and Bruce just said, “The heck with it. I’m going somewhere else.” Bruce did it just to spite Lou. And that was unfortunate, because we felt Bruce was just such a weapon for us.

Bruce Sutter

Before the beard: a portrait of the artist as a young Cub . . .

Braves owner Ted Turner showed Sutter a pile of money.` (Six years, $10 million, guaranteed contract.) But Turner couldn’t show Sutter a staff that knew how to manage his workload and keep him from letting his delivery and his bullpen warmups (he was warmed up far less judiciously in Atlanta than in St. Louis) wreck his shoulder at last.

He suffered inflammation in the final third of August 1985 plus a pinched nerve, the injury that almost kept him buried in the minors in the beginning, before Martin taught him the splitter. He would never be the same pitcher again. Had he not fallen under the Braves’ then-dubious care, Sutter’s percentage of inherited runs to score would have ended below 30 percent, splendid work for any relief pitcher.

He may have seen his career collapse in Atlanta, but the Pennsylvania native found Georgia life agreeable enough to stay there with his wife, Jayme, and their three sons. He was the only player inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 by way of the writers’ vote, an appropriate position considering how he’d helped to change his baseball craft.

His Hall of Fame teammate Ozzie Smith and Hall of Fame Reds catcher Johnny Bench needled him wearing fake, long gray beards as they escorted him to the podium. Sutter made hitters fear the beard from the bullpen long before anyone heard of one-time Giants bullpen stopper Brian Wilson, but he struggled to stay composed addressing and thanking his wife during his acceptance speech.

We were together through the minor leagues, through the major leagues, and now the Hall of Fame. I love you very much, I appreciate everything you have done and continue to do. I wouldn’t be here without you. I know we have some challenges to face in our future, but we’ll do ’em as we always have, together.

Their marriage was a love that endured almost as long as his love for baseball. So did several friendships Sutter made during his career, such as now-Hall of Fame teammate Jim Kaat, who ended his career as a Cardinal while Sutter anchored their bullpen.

“I feel like a brother passed away,” Kaat told a reporter. “I knew Bruce deeper than just about any other teammate. We spent a lot of time together, and as happens when your careers end, you go your separate ways. But we stayed in touch and considered each other great friends.”

The particular challenge didn’t scare Sutter. Whether throwing that rock-skipping splitter past fellow Hall of Famers out of the bullpen (let the record show that except for two homers each, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell, to name two, couldn’t hit him with a warehouse door), or making a half-century marriage raising three sons and becoming beloved grandparents to six in an often self-immolating world, there was no challenge to which Sutter seemed  allergic.

“Heaven needed a big time save,” tweeted longtime baseball analyst Dinn Mann. “Marvelous pitcher, even better person,” tweeted USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale. Baseball will miss him on earth only slightly less than his family will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s