Hitters' personalities rarely change. When they do, they evolve like those of our friends; hitters mature, they age, they grow old. A young singles hitter is likely to end up an old singles hitter, although he may hit a few more homers toward the end, while a home run hitter will keep hitting home runs until he stops and has retirement forced upon him. Cases like that of the Cincinnati Reds' Kal Daniels or the California Angels' Wally Joyner -- players who showed flashes of power in the minors, but who threaten to become genuine fence bashers in the majors -- are few; they are like the bookwormish student who becomes a millionaire entrepreneur after developing a dynamite sales pitch. Hitters are people that fans, and managers, can usually bank on.
Not so with pitchers. From year to year -- and, in bad cases, from game to game -- they are as erratic as the weather. What's more, pitchers' personalities change, often abruptly. Not only do young phenoms blow out their arms and become control pitchers, but young control pitchers like the Houston Astros' Mike Scott develop trick pitches (in Scott's case, the newfangled and fashionable split-fingered fastball) and wind up leading the league in strikeouts. The old pattern, from the 60s and before, was that a pitcher came up, enjoyed some profitable years as a starter, then -- if he was savvy enough -- became a junk-baller and went to the bull pen for a few more years as a relief artist. The relief aces of my youth, for instance, were most of them failed starters with an off pitch: the Cubs' Phil Regan with his sinker, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Dave Giusti with his palm ball, and earlier than that the Pirates' Elroy Face with the prototype of the split-fingered fastball, the forkball. In all these cases, the move to the bull pen required almost a complete change in the pitcher's field personality. In the cases of Regan and the Baltimore Orioles' Stu Miller and Dick Hall (who ended his career with the Birds after pitching in a number of other cities), the changes reflected themselves quite literally in their pitching motions, which turned fragmented, contorted, deliberately deceptive, almost cubist. Those men were odd ducks who somehow found a way to hang on long after their wings had worn out.
The Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe has gone from power pitcher to control pitcher while remaining a starter with a fragmented, cubist delivery, but not only was Sutcliffe subjected to the accompanying trauma, he took a double dose. We all remember the Sutcliffe of 1984, when he earned the Cy Young Award by winning 16 of 17 decisions after coming over from the Cleveland Indians. Yet few of us remember how he did it. He was a power pitcher in his prime then, with his complicated wind-up simply an adornment to the menacing fastball and sharp-breaking slider he had. In a typical outing that year, he would mow through the order a time or two, give up a single in the fifth or sixth, then, in the seventh, load the bases with none out. There, he'd get obnoxiously tough, crank it up a level, and retire the side. He'd come over the inside corner with a fastball, dangle a change-up off the outside corner, cut a slider across the outside corner -- just out of reach -- then come back high and tight for the strikeout. Then inside again before dangling the curve and change-up outside to get the next batter on a slow roller to Ryne Sandberg for the double play, followed by the slow, confident near-strut to the dugout. In those days, he seemed to entice danger just so that he could test himself. He was, quite simply, incredible.
His troubles of the last two years are well known in these parts. Sutcliffe is a pitcher who had changes thrust upon him. An early comeback from a leg injury put too much strain on his shoulder -- in a complicated motion like Sutcliffe's, the smallest problem is magnified -- and after two years of trouble he came into this season with a diminished fastball and a noticeable lack of confidence. (He's even toyed with the split-fingered fastball.) Interviewed on television after a miserable outing on opening day, he seemed a beaten man, dazed and confused. The season looked bleak.
Sutcliffe pitched twice in the team's latest home stand, and by the end of it -- if not for a poor half inning by Lee Smith -- he should have stood 8-2, head and shoulders above the National League leaders in victories. As it is, his seven victories lead the league anyway. Yet, aside from the bare record, he has few similarities with the Sutcliffe of 1984 -- or at least I thought so at first, in giving him close watch. He is a finesse pitcher now, nibbling at the corners, outsmarting the hitters, changing speeds and the positioning of the pitches. No longer overpowering, he is now a master of the blue-smoke-and-mirrors school of pitching. He is a pitcher who has, quite literally, remade himself, yet as I took notice of the changes in Sutcliffe during his last two outings more and more I noticed that his field personality -- although altered -- remains basically the same. I love to watch him pitch.
Against the Reds, a week ago Tuesday, he fell quickly into trouble, walking two in the first inning. With runners at the corners and two outs, he turned lazily and lobbed the ball to Leon Durham, holding Daniels on at first. Then he spun more quickly but mechanically next time, throwing again to first, in a move intended to fool Daniels into thinking it was the best he could muster. Sutcliffe plays this sort of mind game all the time these days; he is relying on the tricks of the trade to get by. Fortunately, the tricks work. He spun in an instant, whipped the ball to Durham, and picked Daniels cleanly off first to end the inning. He walked five men in six innings that day, not showing good control, but he always seemed up to whatever he got himself into. The Cubs gave him a good lead, and he pocketed his seventh victory.
I'd watched that game on television because it was Harry Caray's first day back, but last Sunday I went out to see Sutcliffe firsthand, and the reactions of the fans nearby got me thinking on the topics of Sutcliffe and personality and confidence. He worked quickly through the first two innings, the new Sutcliffe in fine form. He had three strikeouts, one of them a beauty against the Atlanta Braves' cleanup hitter, Dale Murphy. He nibbled at the outside corner, changed speeds up and down, and finally got him swinging on a sweeping outside three-quarters breaking ball. The Braves' pitcher, however, Charlie Puleo, was knocking down the Cubs with equal dispatch, and the two pitchers met with two out in the bottom of the third, neither one having allowed a base runner. Puleo, hitting, took Sutcliffe to a full count and fouled the next three pitches off. Sutcliffe, refusing to give in but without the stuff to blow away a weak sister like the opposing pitcher -- a hitter so stupid the usual tricks were worthless -- came in with a low fastball, and Puleo put it in the left-field bleachers. End of perfect game, end of no-hitter, end of shutout.
The fans booed. Last year, Sutcliffe had too often fallen victim to his opposite number -- a disease he shared with a number of Cubs, who couldn't seem to get opposing pitchers out -- and the memories of the past two seasons are definitely fresher in the fans' memories than the glory days of 1984. In general, Cubs fans are showing a remarkable lack of confidence. Everyone seems to dread the worst, which -- at the same time -- allows them to enjoy these salad days in process, with almost instant nostalgia. As far as Sutcliffe is concerned, they root for the old Red Baron, but they don't have a great deal of confidence in the new.
Sutcliffe regained his composure and retired the next five men, getting Murphy on an excellent companion piece to his second-inning strikeout. Again playing the corners, changing speeds, Sutcliffe this time came inside with a breaking pitch, which Murphy popped meekly to Shawon Dunston. Again, however, in the fifth, the weak sisters at the bottom of the order gave Sutcliffe trouble. With two men on, he faced Puleo, who again ran the count to 3-2. Again Sutcliffe was forced to throw a fastball, and again Puleo hit it deep to left. This one, however, came down in the park to end the inning.
In the seventh, he finally threw Murphy a fastball, and Murphy hit it solidly into right field for a leadoff double. Sutcliffe labored, the fans squirmed. Uneasily confident, I loved it. He walked the next batter, then got Andres Thomas to hit a slow roller to Dunston, too slow for the double play. Runners at the corners, one out. Ozzie Virgil hit a hard grounder to Keith Moreland at third, who knocked down the ball, picked it up, and threw home to nail Murphy. Sutcliffe intentionally walked Glenn Hubbard to get, once again, to Puleo, who was pitching so well pinch-hitting was out of the question. This time, however, he went right to Puleo, threw two strikes, then -- with Puleo expecting he would nibble for three pitches with curves -- threw a hard fastball over the outside corner for called strike three.
Sutcliffe worked quickly through the eighth, and in the bottom of the inning they pinch-hit for him and scored two runs to take the lead. Lee Smith allowed a run in the ninth, so Sutcliffe's eighth win was out the window, but for the day he had allowed only seven base runners and one run in eight innings.
In the fifth, when he had struggled, the first runner on had tried to steal and Jody Davis gunned him down with a perfect throw to second. Sutcliffe has always been attentive to his fielders, and in this case he turned and pointed his glove, thankfully, at Davis. In the glorious past, he would do so and the gesture would be like that of a king giving notice to a knight at a banquet where the dangers were far away, a bare memory even as they were taking place. This gesture to Davis, however -- and Sutcliffe's carriage as he trudges slowly from the field at the end of an inning, no longer strutting -- have instead something more humble about them. He is, at last, the same competitor, the same intelligent artist, but with new tools, a new appreciation of what a difficult task this is, pitching in the National League. Imagine the menacing Bears defense playing against the rest of the National Football League without benefit of pads or helmets -- the changes in tackling and strategy that would be required in giving away so much of their strength and having to play a finesse game. It's such a ridiculous thought; even the Bears would be helpless. Sutcliffe, however, faces a similar predicament, and he has dealt with it admirably, adapting new tricks to the old persona, playing a shell game where he used to merely extort victory. He is, once again, the ace pitcher on a contending team.