A call to the bullpen

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

NEW YORK -- After falling short a dozen times, Bruce Sutter was relieved.

He became only the fourth reliever given baseball's highest honor, gaining election to the Hall of Fame on Tuesday.

"When the phone call came and the caller ID said 'New York,' I thought, oh, maybe this is it," he said.

And when he found out he had made it, Sutter flashed a signal, giving a "thumbs-up" to his wife, sons and daughters-in-law.

"They started screaming," he recalled, "and, actually, I started crying."

Becoming the first pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame with no career starts, the split-finger pioneer was listed on 76.9 percent of the ballots, collecting 400 of a record 520 votes cast by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who have been in the organization for 10 consecutive years or more.

"It was a call that you always hope for, but you never really expect it to happen," Sutter said. "I didn't think it would affect me or hit me as hard as it did."

Players needed 390 votes (75 percent) to gain election. Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice fell 53 short, finishing second with 337 votes (64.8 percent), one ahead of reliever Goose Gossage.

Sutter was the first player elected on the 13th try or later since Ralph Kiner in 1975. Rice was appearing for the 12th time and has three years remaining on the writers' ballot. Gossage was on the ballot for the seventh time.

It might be difficult for Rice and Gossage to gain votes next year, when Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire appear on the ballot for the first time. Each voter may select up to 10 players.

"I was planning a hunting trip next year if I didn't get in this year," Sutter said. "I didn't need to be around the phone, I can tell you that."

Andre Dawson was fourth with 317 votes, followed by Bert Blyleven (277), Lee Smith (234), Jack Morris (214), Tommy John (154) and Steve Garvey (135).

Pete Rose, baseball's banned career hits leader, received 10 write-in votes in what would have been his final year of eligibility. Stricken from the ballot after going on the banned list for betting on Cincinnati while managing the team, Rose was written in on 249 of 7,207 ballots (3.5 percent) over 15 years.

The other players in the Hall who primarily were relievers are Hoyt Wilhelm (elected in 1985), Rollie Fingers (1992) and Dennis Eckersley (2004).

Sutter said Gossage and Smith also should be in.

"I just think sometimes that the voters try to compare us with the starting pitchers," he said. "We can't compete with their statistics, their innings or their strikeouts. I think if you compare us against each other, I think you'll see we're all pretty equal. ... Without us, it's tough to win."

Sutter was a six-time All-Star and the 1979 NL Cy Young Award winner, compiling 300 saves during a 12-season major league career with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis and Atlanta that ended in 1988. He had a 68-71 record with a 2.83 ERA and was third on the saves list when his career was cut short by a torn rotator cuff -- now he's 19th in saves.

He credited Fred Martin, a Cubs minor league pitching coach, with teaching him the splitter late in the 1973 season, and Mike Roarke, another Cubs coach, with helping him refine it.

"It just tickles me still when you see Roger Clemens, as great as he is, throw a split-finger and the hitter just swings and misses. They don't see that ball that well," Sutter said. "Jack Morris threw an awful good one and Mike Scott -- there's a lot of great pitchers over the years that I think that pitch definitely helped their career."

Sutter turned to the splitter following elbow surgery.

"I was a little reluctant to throw sliders or breaking balls anymore," he said. "I was short with the fastball and short with the breaking ball. I needed another pitch or I would never have pitched in the big leagues."

After Sutter was signed by the Cubs in 1971 for $500, he hurt his elbow in his first minor league season. He secretly had surgery -- paying for it himself because he didn't want the Cubs to know -- and looked for an alternative to throwing sliders that might further damage his arm.

By 1976, he was in the majors and posted six wins and 10 saves in 52 games. A year later, Sutter emerged as one of baseball's best relievers, winning seven games and saving 31 in 62 games with a 1.34 ERA. He allowed just 69 hits in 107 1-3 innings.

He won the NL Cy Young Award in 1979 with 37 saves and a 2.22 ERA. He finished in the top six vote-getters in that competition four other times, and was in the top 10 in MVP voting five times.

Sutter was not a one-inning closer, either. He pitched over 100 innings in a season five times.

The action on Sutter's splitter froze hitters and he had an uncanny ability to control the tricky pitch. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3-to-1 and he did not throw a wild pitch after 1984. Opposing batters hit just .223 against him.

Sutter was traded to St. Louis after the 1980 season in what was largely viewed as a salary dump by Chicago. It was an important move for the Cardinals, with Sutter leading the league in saves in three of the four years he pitched in St. Louis.

In 1982, when the Cards beat Milwaukee in the World Series, Sutter won Game 2 with 2 1-3 innings of shutout relief. He also had two saves, getting the final out in Game 7.

Sutter had a 1.54 ERA and a career-best 45 saves in 1984, leading the league for the fifth time in six years.

It was his last great season.

When he first went on the ballot in 1994, Sutter received 109 votes (23.9 percent). His percentage rose to 66.7 last year, when Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg were elected and Sutter fell 43 votes short.

Orel Hershiser (58 votes) and Albert Belle (40) were the only players among the 14 first-time candidates to receive 5 percent, meaning they will remain on the ballot next year. Among those dropped were Will Clark (23 votes), Dwight Gooden (17), Willie McGee (12) and Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen (5).

Sutter will be inducted into the Hall during ceremonies on July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y. The Veterans Committee doesn't vote this year, but a special Negro leagues and pre-Negro leagues selection committee meets Feb. 27 in Tampa, Fla.

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