Bruce Sutter was a minor league pitcher with a weak elbow and a fuzzy future in 1973 when Fred Martin, a coach in the Chicago Cubs organization, asked him if he wanted to try throwing a new pitch. Sutter did. The rest is baseball history.
The pitch was the split-finger fastball. The pitch was also the reason Sutter believes he made it to the major leagues, saved 300 games with the Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves over 12 years and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday.
"It was something I had to throw," Sutter said in a conference call. "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 if I didn't have that pitch."
In Sutter's 13th year on the ballot, he received 76.9 percent of the votes cast by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Sutter was on 400 of a record 520 ballots and barely passed the needed threshold of 75 percent. If 11 of those 400 writers had omitted Sutter, the closer who revolutionized the pitch that devilishly dives would still be waiting. While Sutter was so emotional over the news that he wept with his family in Georgia, Jim Rice and Rich Gossage were frustrated again.
Rice, a Boston Red Sox outfielder, received 337 votes for 64.8 percent, and Gossage, a reliever who pitched for more than two decades, notched 336. Sutter said he thought that Gossage, who was 54 votes short of 75 percent, was "definitely a Hall of Fame pitcher." So is Lee Smith, the career saves leader, Sutter added. Smith received 234 votes.
"Right now, I don't think I'll ever get in," Gossage said. "Why would I feel good about this? Because Sutter got in, that's supposed to help me? Let me tell you, I don't have to take a back seat to anybody."
For now, Sutter is the only closer headed to Cooperstown. He becomes the fourth closer in the Hall of Fame, and he is the first pitcher to make it who never started a game. Sutter will announce which team's cap will appear on his plaque during a news conference today in New York.
Even though Rice, Gossage and Andre Dawson (61 percent) had increases in their votes, the competition will stiffen next year when Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mark McGwire are eligible for the first time. McGwire's presence offers an interesting question for voters who will have to decide how to judge his refusal last year to tell a congressional committee whether he had used steroids during his career, an allegation made in a book by Jose Canseco, his former teammate.
"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."
A player can appear for 15 years on the writers' balloting, then can be voted to the Hall only by the old-timers' committee.
Gossage's disappointment after being bypassed in his seventh year on the ballot was obvious. In a 22-year career in which he saved 310 games and had a 124-107 record, he is most remembered for being a feared closer with a blazing fastball for the Yankees.
But Gossage says he thinks he has been unfairly compared to modern closers, who typically pitch one inning per outing.
When Gossage was relieving, he often came in as early as the seventh inning. Now, closers are reserved for the ninth and, sometimes, pieces of the eighth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Gossage averaged 1.64 outs in games he finished, while Sutter averaged 1.52. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera averages 1.08.