A change of scenery

I can only imagine how bad the night of June 6, 1984 must have sucked for Rick Sutcliffe. His team, the Cleveland Indians, was already in 7th place, and 20 1/2 games out of first. The Cleveland populace had taken note of this, and fewer than 4,000 of them had come out that evening to watch their Tribe take on the visiting Oakland A’s. To put the attendance in perspective, just 5% of the seats were filled. The ballpark  must have felt especially cavernous that night.

Sutcliffe, who had a 3-5 record at the time, gave up a couple of runs early, but his team provided some run support in the fourth inning. Sutcliffe took the mound with a 5-2 lead, and proceeded to give up two singles, a stolen base, a walk, and a bases-clearing double to Dwayne Murphy. The lead was gone, and Sutcliffe exited the game, possibly on the hook for another loss. His team rallied to a 7-6 victory, but Sutcliffe could not have been looking forward to another three-and-a-half months of that.

And it turns out he didn’t have to. Whether he was praying for something like this to happen is something only he knows for certain, but on June 13th he was involved in a seven-player deal with the Chicago Cubs. His first start for the Cubs came in Pittsburgh, and his second start came in Wrigley Field against the Cardinals on June 24.

The Cubs and the Cardinals have one of the premiere rivalries in baseball, and pitching in front of a packed Wrigley Field, with the usual playoff atmosphere in the air, must have felt a long way from Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. Sutcliffe pitched a shutout, and then lost his next start in Los Angeles. As the fateful month of June, 1984 came to a close, things were looking up for Rick Sutcliffe.

Over the next three months, Sutcliffe found a groove that I doubt he had ever been in before.  In the seventeen starts that he made, he collected fourteen victories, including the division clincher in Pittsburgh, and he won Game one of the NL playoffs, to boot. He had been a pretty good pitcher in his career before then, but I imagine he felt superhuman over that stretch. Certainly the National League couldn’t beat him.

When it came time to pick the Cy Young Award winner, Sutcliffe won unamimously over Doc Gooden, even though Gooden had a lower ERA and had pitched in the league for the entire season. Gooden was named National League Rookie of the year, though, and two years later he would win the World Series title that always eluded Sutcliffe. The Red Baron, as he was called, even finished fourth in the MVP voting that season, which is truly amazing for a player who started June in almost complete obscurity in Cleveland.

The best news of all was that 1984 was a contract year for Rick Sutcliffe. Although he had many nice offers to choose from, he wound up remaining in Chicago, for five years and several million dollars. The contract had already been signed by the time this 1985 giveaway card from 7-Up appeared. His facial hair makes it hard to tell for certain, but I swear that he looks serene, and almost happy, as he’s delivering a pitch to the plate on this card. Sometimes, in baseball as in life,  a change of scenery really is for the best.

3 thoughts on “A change of scenery

  1. That 16-1 record was astounding to me. Gotta be one of the best midseason deals a team has ever pulled off.

    I checked “baseballcardpedia” for info on those 7-up giveaways and couldn’t find anything, though a 1985 7-up Sutcliffe “coin” is listed when you do a search by player for Sutcliffe. Here’s the main page of that site:

  2. Thanks Josh. I found some on eBay, which makes me think it was more than a one-day giveaway to the fans at Wrigley. What really surprises me about the Sutcliffe story, when I think about it, is that he changed leagues at about the one-third point in the season, and still won the Cy Young unamimously. I would be surprised if that has ever happened with anyone else.

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