One Pack. No Turning Back.
Number of miles driven today: 64
Total miles driven on road trip: 9,123
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Starbucks again
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 24-16-2.
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 16-24-2
Cheapest gas I saw today: $2.58
Number of states visited overall: 26
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 12 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri)
Number of blue states visited overall: 14 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois)
Number of Cy Young Awards won by Rick Sutcliffe: 1
Number of texts he received from Kenny Chesney during our interview: 1
Number of phone calls he screened from Ryne Sandberg during our interview: 1
If you were in a foxhole in 'Nam, you would not want Rick Sutcliffe with you.
Not because he's not strong, or tough, or loyal. He is all of these things.
But he also happens to be 6'7" with shock red hair. They don't call him the Red Baron for nothing.
I sat in front of Dixon's Famous Chili on Route 40 in Independence, MO, waiting for the 1984 National League Cy Young winner. He grew up here, but it looks like the town may have peaked during his childhood. Next to Dixon's (since 1919!), there is a store front with a blank sign and next to that, a place called Oddesy Martial Arts advertising the following: pepper spray, stun guns, knives, and swords. Since I'm all set on swords, I sat with the Accord's door open and waited for the Red Baron's approach.
A black Ford expedition pulled up moments later, and the passenger side window slid down, revealing the bloodshot green eyes of one Rick Sutcliffe, known to most simply as "Sut." "
"What's goin' on, man?" he said as I climbed into the front seat. He wore a baseball hat with sunglasses perched on top, and a golf shirt and shorts. Looking at the fringe of hair peeking below his hat, the Red Baron appears to be graying, although the goatee is still ginger.
"Not much. Happy to be home?" I asked, shaking his large paw.
"Yeah, just for a day," he said. Sut had flown in yesterday from Houston after broadcasting the Wednesday night game for ESPN. He told me about his dinner plans tonight, which slightly exceeded mine at the Comfort Inn:
"Kenny Chesney is putting on a dinner on stage tonight for his friends. I met him when I was finishing up with the Cardinals," he explained. Tomorrow, Sut will attend his concert here in KC.
Playing in Chicago in the 1980s, Sut reached Beatles-level celebrity during the Cubs playoff run in 1984. He befriended the owner of Murphy's Sports Bleachers, an iconic watering hole by Wrigley Field, and had his own apartment above the bar where he could unwind with a beer privately and host other celebrities when they came to town. He developed friendships with guys like Bill Murray and Mark Harmon that he still maintains.
Sut drove me around his old neighborhood, stopping at his grandparents' house where he grew up and his high school.
"My parents divorced when I was 11, and after that, I pretty much lived with my grandparents," he said. His dad was an established race car driver with the nickname "Mr. Excitement," which sounds like a better name for a pro wrestler, and was often gone during Sut's childhood, traveling the circuit with Sut's mom.
After half an hour of the Independence driving tour, I had asked all of one question, not counting follow-ups. Unlike the other guys in the pack, Sut was immediately comfortable with me, launching into his biography with ease and little prompting. Having been part of the media for almost 20 years, he knows how journalists think and anticipated my questions before I could even ask. And unlike most of the other guys, he showed genuine interest in me, which was refreshing.
"So what's your story?" he asked me shortly after we began.
I explained my unusual hybrid career of college professor and writer, and he smirked and said, "You look like you could still be in college."
We pulled up to Van Horn High School and parked the car. He unfurled his massive frame that had been concealed behind the steering wheel. Walking briskly next to him felt like sidekicking for a giant teddy bear.
Despite being summer, the school lobby was a hive of activity, a row of students lined up in the office with expressions reminiscent of detention. A display case dedicated to Sut's accomplishments greeted us, with both Van Horn and Chicago Cubs jerseys hanging. We drew stares from every direction, and while I snapped a couple photos, Sut was already halfway back out the door, probably sensing that if we lingered the crowd would soon shake off their shock and start approaching.
For the rest of the morning, Sut retraced his life in and out of baseball, thoughtfully answering my questions and even stopping by his house for a tour of all the mementos and accolades decorating the walls. For all his accomplishments, his favorites are the awards given for his activities off the field, like the Roberto Clemente and Buck O'Neil awards. He started out with very little, even having to borrow $4,000 from Peter O'Malley after his rookie season (a debt that O'Malley generously forgave), but as soon as he hit the contract jackpot in 1984, he set aside $100,000 to establish the Rick Sutcliffe Foundation.
Driving back to Dixon's, I asked Sut about his dad, Mr. Excitement.
"I don't even know if he's dead or alive," he replied. Caught up a bit too much in his own name, Sut's dad split when he was only 11, leaving the wife and kids behind and running off with another woman.
"I showed up at my first Dodgers camp, and there were all these big names like Drysdale and Koufax there, and I wasn't scared by any of them," he said.
"I idolized my dad," Sut said. But once he abandoned them, Sut never wanted to take the risk of having a hero again. He channeled that anger on the mound, transforming every fifth day into a glowering crimson warrior, "one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen" as Steve Yeager said. He pitched with attitude, never afraid to knock someone down.
I told him about Don Carman and Randy Ready's similar stories of pain relating to their fathers. Carman's dad never spoke directly to him except when he was administering "disciplinary measures," as Carman put it. Both of their fathers died of heart attacks when they were 15 and 16, respectively.
I recounted Ready's story about how his dad worked on the oil pipeline in Alaska and how he only got to see him sparingly. The family was scheduled for a visit, and the day before they were to leave, they received word that his dad had dropped dead. Randy's last memory of his father was saying goodbye several months prior. His dad had gone to hug him, and Randy had pulled back, thinking it wasn't manly to show that kind of emotion.
He never got that hug.
I glanced over at Sut, who has a daughter who is a medical doctor for World Vision International, and saw his eyes filled with tears.
"I tell my daughter every phone call that I love her," he said.
Early in his career, the Dodgers paid Sut and other players to visit kids at local hospitals. Good PR. But Sut loved it so much, he kept doing it for free for the rest of his career.
"I've had so many doctors tell me, your medicine is ten times better than ours," he said.
Sut may have given up on having his own heroes, but in the process, he became one himself.
Excitement, after all, is overrated.
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The Red Baron
Day 43: Kansas City, MO, 7.31.15