The Ban Johnson League invited Rick Sutcliffe, the Independence, Mo. native and long-time analyst for ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball out to the K to deliver the ceremonial first pitch prior to the league’s annual All-Star Game.
Before the game Sutcliffe enjoyed visiting with the players.
“The reason I’m here is to congratulate these guys,” he said. “I told them to follow their dreams. There are a lot of ways to make a living in baseball behind the scenes if you can’t make it on the field.”
And what did he notice about the current players?
“I was a freak at 6-7 back in 1974. Now there are a lot of big players and some of them are bigger than I am.”
Sutcliffe recalled how he got his opportunity to play professional baseball.
Back in 1974 he was a 17-year old recent graduate of Van Horn High School in Independence playing for an American Legion team.
“Carl Blando (legendary Ban Johnson League manager and Major League Baseball scout) asked me to play in the Ban Johnson League,” he said. “That was like a dream come true for me.”
Sutcliffe played for Blando’s Butternut Bread team, but not primarily as a pitcher.
“I was a shortstop,” he said. “They told me I wasn’t ready to pitch in the league.”
Sutcliffe was the first round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the 21st player taken in the 1974 draft.
“I got to pitch the day before the draft and I didn’t make it out of the second inning,” he said. “If they had let me pitch while the scouts were out watching me, I don’t know what would have happened.”
He said that playing in the BJ helped him when he played against older players in the minor leagues.
Sutcliffe, who had the nickname the Red Baron, made his MLB debut with the Dodgers in late September of 1976. His career ended with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1994.
He played with the Dodgers, Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago Cubs, Baltimore and the Cardinals compiling a record of 171-139, winning 16 games or more four seasons.
He was the Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers in 1979, won the Cy Young Award with the Cubs in 1984 and was a three time All-Star.
And, incidentally, in his career he hit four home runs.
He had a chance to sign with the Royals following his Cy Young year with the Cubs.
“They offered me a lifetime contract,” he said. “It was my dream growing up of playing with the Kansas City A’s, then the Royals. I noticed my family and friends going crazy over Royals’ players. I didn’t want to be the center of attention. I had a two-year old daughter and I just wanted to be dad.”
Sutcliffe, who has a house here in the Kansas City area, has been the baseball analyst for ESPN on their Wednesday night games since 2002.
He is a member of the Ban Johnson Hall of Fame and the league’s pitcher of the year is named in his honor.
And this writer remembers watching Sutcliffe playing basketball for Van Horn High School back in the middle 70s.