The reason Whitey Herzog once called Ryne Sandberg the best player he had ever seen wasn't just because Sandberg had hit two home runs in one game, including a game winner in extra innings to beat the Cardinals, but because he hit those homers off Bruce Sutter.
Sutter was that good, he was that unhittable, he was that revered. No one had ever done to Sutter what Sandberg did that day, a day that Sandberg acknowledged was the biggest of his career, the day that the baseball community -- and Sandberg himself -- realized how good he could be. Such acclaim would not have come had he hit those home runs off some ordinary reliever, only off the brilliant Sutter. Sandberg spoke of the importance of that day during his induction speech at the Hall of Fame last summer, and wondered why Sutter wasn't in Cooperstown. He should be. Sutter was the best closer of his era, he was one of the best of all time and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Sutter saved 300 games. Before anyone says that it's only the 19th most ever, three fewer than Doug Jones and 24 fewer than Roberto Hernandez, let's first understand this: When Sutter retired after the 1988 season, only two pitchers had more saves: Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers with 341 and should-be Hall of Famer Goose Gossage with 302. Sutter was the first National League pitcher to reach 200 saves, and the first to save 300, and became the NL's all-time save leader before he turned 30. During the first nine years of his career, Sutter saved 260 games, most in the major leagues, 52 more than Fingers, the runner-up.
But Sutter's career save total -- and some of his brilliant single seasons -- have been lost somewhat in the devaluation of the save over the last 15 years. Cheap saves are easier to achieve today than ever because push-button managers use closers almost exclusively in the ninth inning with a lead. And since some closers today are making around $10 million a year, that salary has to be justified, which means getting as many save situations as possible for the closer. Sutter was saving 30 games every year when it really meant something. Now, 40 saves is the standard. But there were only nine 40-save seasons in the 1980s, including one by Sutter; in 1998 alone, there were eight 40-save performances.
Sutter was a workhorse closer who wasn't used only in the ninth inning with a lead; he occasionally entered a game in the seventh inning. He pitched 100 or more innings in a season five times, and in his 10 full seasons, never pitched fewer than 80 innings. Dennis Eckersley cruised into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot -- as he should have; he first was an accomplished starting pitcher, unlike Sutter -- but he never pitched more than 80 innings in his 10 full seasons as a closer. In Sutter's first nine years, only rubber-armed sidewinder Kent Tekulve made more appearances than Sutter, another tribute to his durability.
Sutter won the National League Cy Young in 1979, and finished in the top five three other seasons. He finished in the top seven in the MVP balloting five times. He closed for the world champion Cardinals in 1982, he led the league in saves five times and he made six All-Star teams. He spent five seasons with the Cubs (1976-1980), who never finished above .500 in that time, but he saved 133 of their 379 victories. He finished his career with a 2.83 ERA despite pitching five seasons at Wrigley Field, which, on many days, was hitter friendly. In his first nine years, Sutter had the lowest ERA (2.54) of any pitcher in the major leagues, starter or reliever, with at least 750 innings.
The mark of a Hall of Famer is that you know he's a Hall of Famer when you see him. That was Sutter. His critics say he didn't pitch long enough, but how many closers pitch effectively for more than 10 years? He was done by age 32 mostly because of arm injuries, but Sutter was the game's most dominant closer for a decade, and he essentially perfected a pitch -- the split-fingered fastball -- that so many pitchers learned because of his success.
How could he throw that pitch so well?
"Look at these!" he once said, spreading out the five fingers on his right hand well out in front of his face. "Look how long these fingers are! I can touch my nose from here."
This is Sutter's 13th year on the ballot. Look at these numbers! Some of us voted for him his first year and have voted for him every year. It's time for him to make it to Cooperstown.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.