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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bruce Sutter, Hall of Fame relief pitcher, is dead at 69

Bruce Sutter pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1981. In 12 seasons, he saved 300 games for the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves.

By Richard Goldstein

Bruce Sutter, the relief pitcher who relied on a single delivery, the split-fingered fastball, to become a six-time All-Star, a recipient of the 1979 Cy Young Award as the National League’s leading pitcher and, ultimately, the first pitcher inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame without starting a major league game, died Thursday at a hospice in Cartersville, Georgia. He was 69.

His death was announced on the St. Louis Cardinals’ website. His son Chad told The Associated Press that he was recently found to have cancer.

Sutter, a right-hander, saved exactly 300 games pitching for the Chicago Cubs from 1976 to 1980, the Cardinals from 1981 to 1984 and the Atlanta Braves in 1985, 1986 and 1988.

He won the Cy Young Award in 1979 when he had 37 saves, tying a National League record that has subsequently been exceeded many times, including by Sutter himself, who had 45 saves in 1984. The current record, 55 single-season saves, is now shared by John Smoltz and Eric Gagne.

Sutter (pronounced SUIT-er) threw two perfect innings to finish off the Cardinals’ Game 7 World Series victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982.

“I think he was sort of a precursor to what Mariano Rivera did with the cutter — Bruce did it with one pitch, and that was the split-fingered fastball,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Kaat, a teammate of Sutter’s with the Cardinals, told “Even though hitters knew it was coming, they still weren’t able to hit it.”

But sometimes Sutter departed from his signature pitch, most memorably when he closed out the Cardinals’ 1982 Series triumph. “The irony of that is he struck out Gorman Thomas for the last out of the World Series on a high fastball that was just 84 mph,” Kaat recalled.

Sutter, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, was fortunate to have made it out of the minor leagues.

He appeared in only two games with the Cubs organization in 1972, having incurred a pinched nerve in his right elbow. He underwent surgery at his own expense after the season, fearing that the Cubs would release him if they knew how serious his injury was. But when he arrived at Chicago’s minor league spring training in 1973, he had lost velocity on his fastball.

The Cubs’ minor league pitching coach, Fred Martin, a former Cardinals pitcher and a longtime minor leaguer, had experimented with what came to be called a split-fingered delivery. He noticed the surgical scar on Sutter’s elbow and taught him how to throw it.

The split-fingered delivery requires a pitcher to hold the baseball with the index and middle fingers spread widely apart on the side of the ball and the thumb on the underside. When the baseball approaches home plate, it has a sharp forward spin, and what the batter sees as an ordinary fastball or change-up suddenly dips down.

Sutter made his major league debut with the Cubs in May 1976. He became their closer in his second season with them, when he compiled 31 saves and gained his first All-Star selection. In his four years with the Cardinals he was a two-inning wonder when called upon to extend himself from the more customary one-inning relief stint.

“When I warmed him up, if I didn’t use him that inning, he’d still pitch the next inning,” Whitey Herzog, who acquired Sutter when he was the Cardinals’ general manager and manager, told “A lot of his saves were two to two and a third innings. And I could bring him in with the bases loaded and he’d go down 3-0 and he’d still not walk a hitter.”

Sutter had a 68-71 record and a career ERA of 2.83 in his 12 major league seasons. In 661 games, he threw 1,042 innings and struck out 861 batters.

He was the fourth reliever to be elected to the Hall of Fame, after Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley.

The pitch that saved him remains a weapon in today’s game.

Howard Bruce Sutter was born Jan. 8, 1953, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the fifth of six children of Howard and Thelma Sutter. His father managed a Farm Bureau warehouse.

After briefly attending Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, he was pitching semipro baseball in Pennsylvania when the Cubs organization signed him in September 1971.

Sutter lived in the Atlanta area after his playing days. His survivors include his wife, Jayme Leigh, their three sons, Josh, Chad and Ben, and six grandchildren.

The Cardinals carried out their own version of retiring Sutter’s number 42 in 2006. That number had already been retired by Major League Baseball in tribute to Jackie Robinson, but the Cardinals have added Sutter’s name to Robinson’s in their display of retired numbers at Busch Stadium.

Shortly before Sutter’s induction into the Hall of Fame, he paid tribute to the delivery that rescued his career.

As he put it, “I wouldn’t be here without that pitch.”

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