Ex-Cubs star Rick Sutcliffe took on a Brave new world and had a grand old time
The Cy Young winner and longtime ESPN analyst knew of a team in need and, well, let’s just say it was a family affair he’ll never forget.
What else was Ryder Benson’s dad supposed to do when a team of 8-year-olds — signed up to play kid-pitch for the first time — suddenly found itself without a head coach?
Hunter Benson raised his hand because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Then again, the former Arkansas tennis player was no baseball expert. So he did one more thing: call on a San Diego-area neighbor, who just so happened to be his father-in-law, and offer the coveted position of Encinitas Braves assistant.
“And that’s how I became a coach,” said Rick Sutcliffe, the ESPN analyst, Marquee contributor and ex-Cubs Cy Young winner who turns 65 next week.
Technically, it wasn’t Sutcliffe’s first time coaching ball. After then-Cubs general manager Ed Lynch declined his request in 1995 to coach in the organization, the Red Baron trucked out with his family to Idaho Falls, Idaho, for a job with the Padres. They had a rookie-league squad there, and Padres president Larry Lucchino had been in Baltimore when Sutcliffe pitched for the Orioles and served as a mentor to Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina. Who better, then, to work with the pitchers?
But that assignment led quickly to a TV job in San Diego, and the rest is broadcast history. Coaching Ryder was an unexpected development, albeit a simple and sweet one. For Sutcliffe, it simply meant leaving wife Robin’s, daughter Shelby’s and younger grandson Austin’s sides in the bleachers, getting out on the dirt and grass and imparting both a ballplayer’s experience and some grandfatherly wisdom.
OK, so things at Ecke Sports Park weren’t quite that easy for the youngest team — by far, according to Sutcliffe — in a league for 8- to 10-year-olds.
“This was the first year any of them played kid-pitch,” he said. “We had three kids to begin with who, when the pitcher would throw it, would turn the other way or duck down. We got off to an 0-4 start.”
The roster also included a 7-year-old, who had to squint into the sun to see the faces of 10-year-old opponents, as well as a player with a prosthetic lower leg whose three-time big-league All-Star assistant coach calls him “as tough a kid as there is on Earth.” It also included Ryder, a right-hander whose arm is, well, take a guess.
“Electric,” Sutcliffe said. “He throws like a 12-year-old.”
But what did Ryder do on his first pitch of the season? Drill a guy, and not on purpose. Rattled, Ryder started walking one batter after another because he didn’t want to hit anyone else. It didn’t make things any easier that his mom had told him he’d have to apologize to anyone else he plunked. What to do?
“I moved him to the first-base side of the rubber,” Sutcliffe said, “which got him away from those right-handed hitters and kind of opened up the zone.”
Eureka! Before long, Ryder was starting to lock in and the whole team was coming around. Sutcliffe told them stories of being 17 in rookie ball — along with similarly young Dodgers hotshot prospects Pedro Guerrero and Jeffrey Leonard, to name two — and that team losing loads of games before turning the corner and becoming a big winner. Benson, meanwhile, hit on the perfect slogan, playing on his team’s nickname:
It became the Braves’ rallying cry before every practice and every game. Hands in the middle. All together: “One, two, three, BE BRAVE!”
It took a while, but every last kid on the team dented the hit column and — lo and behold — some actual wins began to occur. That hadn’t looked so likely on opening day, when Sutcliffe sent photos from the diamond to a few pals on a text chain: ex-Cubs president Theo Epstein, Red Sox president Sam Kennedy and noted Encinitas Little League veteran Eddie Vedder, perhaps slightly better known for his work with Pearl Jam.
“Eddie went crazy,” Sutcliffe recalled with a laugh.
The Braves made the playoffs as the sixth-place team out of nine, then upset the third- and second-place teams. Only one “W” to go … but no. It didn’t happen. No championship for the Braves this time.
“But if you’d have been at our team party, you’d have thought we won it,” Sutcliffe said. “I know what the Cubs’ parade was like in 2016. I’m telling you, those kids out there had every bit as much fun.”
That party was Monday at a small community park in Encinitas. The kids sat together, ate, drank and received awards. Then, something special happened: the little ballfield there opened up. A game of Wiffle ball broke out.
Sutcliffe watched it all and remembered when, early in his big-league career, someone involved with a Big Brothers mentoring program in Cleveland advised him that five minutes of his time with young people was worth more than $5,000.
“For some reason,” Sutcliffe said, “that always stuck with me.”
At the party, he was presented with a gift: a coffee cup with “Thank you Coach Rick!” on it. And above those words, in big, bold letters?
It’s exactly what he’ll be. After all, that’s his team.