Their fame can't be split from game

Kirk Wessler

The date rolls easily off Ryne Sandberg's tongue.

'So many fans relate my career to that game on June 23, 1984,' the Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer says.

That game. 'The Sandberg Game.' On NBC-TV's 'Game of the Week,' he hit a pair of game-tying home runs, one in the ninth inning and another in the 10th, off the premier closer in baseball and another future Hall of Famer, Bruce Sutter of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs won in the 11th, and Sandberg became an instant star on the national stage.

The subject comes up now because Sutter will visit Peoria on June 14, as the annual Legend at the Ballpark to benefit the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Sutter, generally retired to a life of hunting and fishing and doting on his grandchildren in Atlanta, says he doesn't do many public appearances. But he agreed to this one in part because Sandberg manages the Peoria Chiefs and Sutter wanted to see him — if for no other reason than to harass the local skipper for being ejected from four games this season.

Oh, yeah. That bit of news from the minor leagues reached Atlanta long before a Peoria reporter's phone call.

'Back when we played,' Sutter says, 'we didn't know Ryno had a pulse.'

'That's true. That's exactly right,' Sandberg says, stoically taking the needle. 'I just played the game and took my aggressions out on the baseball and opposing pitchers.'

They see each other at least annually now, at Hall of Fame

festivities in Cooperstown, N.Y. Sutter was inducted in 2006. Sandberg went in the previous year, just a few weeks after he had been IPMR's 2005 Legend at the Ballpark.

That was before Sandberg decided to get back into baseball as a manager and was tabbed to lead the Cubs' Class A Midwest League affiliate here.

'When I was inducted, I was all about going back to where I started,' Sandberg says. 'I felt like I wanted to give something back.'

Sutter finds himself in that situation now.

In addition to his sold-out meet-and-greet at O'Brien Field the evening of June 14, he will take part in a clay pigeon shoot that morning at the Oakridge Sportsman's Club in Mackinaw. Proceeds from that intimate, $500-per-person event also benefit IPMR. Call 692-8110 to reserve a spot.

Sutter is an avid outdoorsman. He enjoys hunting near his home in Georgia, as well as on property he leases in Montana and at another place he owns near his boyhood stomping grounds in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

And he loves talking baseball.

Sutter will tell you he gave little thought about making the Hall of Fame, especially after shoulder trouble prematurely ended his career with the Atlanta Braves in 1988. He garnered lukewarm support from the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America after becoming eligible in 1994, but his ballot totals spiked in 2000 and increased each year until he won induction.

Now, he's a staunch advocate for another closer.

'Lee Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame,' Sutter says. 'He had six or seven years in the beginning of his career when he pitched two or three innings at a time, like me and Rollie Fingers. When the game changed and closers began to work only one inning, he lined up that way, so his numbers are different. I think he gets lumped in with the one-inning guys, but he belongs.'

Sutter also believes the Hall should make room for the old Cubs third baseman, Ron Santo, plus Tony Oliva, Maury Wills and Jim Kaat. Those players failed to achieve enough votes from the writers during their 15 years of eligibility. But as a living Hall of Famer, Sutter gets to vote every other year for overlooked veterans.

Ultimately, there was no overlooking Sutter, who threw a split-fingered fastball, a pitch that, when thrown well, dropped out of sight as hitters flailed over it. Occasionally, and particularly later in his career, Sutter would throw a straight fastball in an attempt to keep hitters off balance. But the two balls Sandberg hit that day were both splitters.

'They broke,' Sutter says, with deadpan self-effacement. 'They just broke about 380 feet too late.'

Ever since, the two players have been joined at the hip like few other rivals in baseball lore.

Sutter gets questioned about that day regularly. 'Especially if I'm talking to Cubs fans,' he says.

So does Sandberg.

And on the occasions when the two are together ... 'people around us start to stir the pot a little bit, and the fans get a big kick out of it,' Sandberg says.

'Before we were in the Hall of Fame, we'd see each other at Cubs events in Wrigley Field. There was some early ribbing after we hadn't seen each other for a while.'

When they meet again this month, the subject is bound to come up again.

'I'm not going to say, ‘Hey, Bruce, remember the two home runs I hit off you?' I won't go that far,' Sandberg says. But he smiles, knowing the needles will be out.

'Hey,' Sutter says, matter-of-factly, 'now we're both in the Hall of Fame. Back then, we both went at it — and that day he beat me.'

KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Contact him at (309) 686-3216 or