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Archive for Monday, July 31, 2006

Closure for awestruck closer

Hall-of-famer Sutter had disappointing end to career

July 31, 2006

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— Bruce Sutter didn't leave baseball the way he wanted, booed relentlessly when injuries sapped his talent. That doesn't matter any more.

Eighteen years after he hung up his spikes for good, Sutter was inducted Sunday into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I am in awe," said Sutter, who joined Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley as the only relief pitchers in the Hall. "I wish I could turn back the clock and play one more game.

"When I got the call in January, it brought closure to a baseball career that did not end how I hoped it would," said Sutter, whose last four years in Atlanta were filled with taunts after rotator-cuff problems eventually forced him to retire with 300 saves after only 12 years in the major leagues. "It answered the question: 'Do you belong?' The thought of having my name in is truly an honor and humbling experience."

Although Sutter was the lone player selected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, he was part of the largest class of inductees in Hall of Fame history. Seventeen players and executives from baseball's segregated past, all of them deceased, also were inducted, including Effa Manley, the first woman to be so honored.

"It's a wonderful day," said Rachel Robinson, the wife of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier 59 years ago. "I'm very excited about it. It's a long time coming. We're very, very proud of the Negro Leaguers."

Sutter also shared the dais with J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Tracy Ringolsby, current national columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, and Ford C. Frick Award winner Gene Elston, former broadcast voice of Houston baseball.

Tracy Ringolsby, left, and Bruce Sutter hold hands as requsted by Buck O'Neil during his talk about the Negro League. Ringolsby received the Baseball Writer's Award and Sutter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Tracy Ringolsby, left, and Bruce Sutter hold hands as requsted by Buck O'Neil during his talk about the Negro League. Ringolsby received the Baseball Writer's Award and Sutter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

As he did during his stellar 12-year career, Sutter was the closer on this day. And he fought his emotions throughout his speech, which honored everybody who helped him become the first Hall of Famer who never started a game in his career.

"This day is about the people who helped me along the way. I would not be standing here without them," said Sutter, his familiar beard now turned gray. "My dad was never too tired to play catch. It was his temperament that rubbed off on me."

Perhaps the biggest debt Sutter owed was to Fred Martin, the man who taught him to throw the pitch that saved his career - the split-fingered fastball. After undergoing surgery to fix a pinched nerve in his right elbow, Sutter met Martin, the roving minor-league pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs, in 1973 and three years later was pitching in Wrigley Field.

"Nobody was throwing what he called the split-finger," Sutter said. "It was a pitch that didn't change how the game was played, but developed a new way to get hitters out. Everybody who throws the split-fingered fastball owes a great deal of thanks to Fred Martin (who died in 1979) because he was the first one to teach it."

In 1976, Sutter registered six wins and 10 saves and a 2.70 earned-run average in 52 appearances, and his career took off. The next season he assumed the role of closer for the Cubs and finished with 31 saves and a 1.34 ERA, and in 1978 registered 27 saves.

Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, left, and Johnny Bench, right, tease Bruce Sutter during his induction.

Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, left, and Johnny Bench, right, tease Bruce Sutter during his induction.

Sutter was even better the next season, winning the NL Cy Young Award, posting a National League-record-tying 37 saves, and also was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game for the second straight year. But when he won an arbitration award of $700,000 after the season, the Cubs, who had Lee Smith waiting for his chance, traded him to St. Louis after the 1980 season.

Sutter signed a four-year contract worth an estimated $3.5 million with the Cardinals, making him the highest-paid reliever in the game. He averaged almost 32 saves a year and led the league three times, establishing a league-record 45 in 1984 and keyed the Cards' 1982 World Series triumph over Milwaukee, their first title since 1967.

Sutter was a bundle of nerves. On Saturday night, he received word that the Cardinals were going to retire his No. 42, and his wife, Jayme, is facing surgery in two weeks to remove a cancerous kidney.

"I'm not usually an emotional guy," said Sutter, who was greeted before his speech by Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Johnny Bench wearing long, gray beards in an effort to relax Sutter. "My kid said the first time anybody ever saw me cry was when I got that phone call (in January). A lot of people have seen me cry now."

The first speaker of the day was 94-year-old Buck O'Neil, who received a standing ovation before and after he spoke. O'Neil, one of the driving forces in the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., received much support to be part of the class from the Negro Leagues, but fell short in the voting.

"I have no clue as to why he was not elected," said former Negro Leagues star and Hall of Famer Monte Irvin. "They are hoping in time there might be some reconsideration. I just hope he'll live long enough."

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