Celebrating 60: Oates’ pitch led Sutcliffe to mound for Camden Yards opener

As a free agent following the 1991 season, pitcher Rick Sutcliffe had no intention of playing in the American League in 1992. He figured he’d sign with St. Louis so he could be close to home and stay in the more familiar National League.

Johnny Oates, the Orioles’ manager at the time, had other ideas. He brought Sutcliffe to Camden Yards on a cold December day and sold him on becoming an Oriole.

“He told me I was going to make Orioles history by throwing the first pitch in Camden Yards,” Sutcliffe says.

And Sutcliffe did. On April 6, 1992, Sutcliffe threw the first pitch in Camden Yards history as the Orioles beat Cleveland 2-0 before 44,568 on a sunny 63-degree day.

Sutcliffe, who will be an ESPN TV analyst for the Orioles-Red Sox opener at Camden Yards, and Oates were friends from their days with the Dodgers and the Cubs. “Johnny was responsible for a lot of my success with the Cubs,” Sutcliffe says.

Still, during Oates’ pitch, Sutcliffe wondered how he was going to tell Oates that he wasn’t coming to Baltimore. Oates suggested Sutcliffe stand on the mound.

When he did, Sutcliffe was amazed at the new ballpark with old-fashioned charm. He loved the views and sensed a historic touch, even though the ballpark was still under construction.

By the time he left the field, he told his agent to work out a deal with the Orioles.

But in spring training, Sutcliffe wasn’t sure he was the right guy for the assignment. With two weeks left in camp, Sutcliffe told Oates that another pitcher, Mike Mussina, deserved to be the opening-day starter.

Oates disagreed.

Sutcliffe’s memory of the first opener at Camden Yards wasn’t typical. Instead, he remembers food poisoning. A day before, the Orioles played an exhibition at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., and Sutcliffe, along with several Orioles, got sick from the postgame sandwich spread.

At 3 a.m., about 12 hours before the first pitch, he was throwing up with a fever of 102. Sutcliffe’s wife, Robin, wanted to take him to a hospital emergency room. She wanted to call Oates to say that her husband couldn’t pitch.

“I told her, ‘You are not going to call Johnny,’ ” Sutcliffe recalls.

At the ballpark before the historic game, Sutcliffe knew the sickness was bad when he saw coach Cal Ripken Sr. - “the toughest guy I know” - stretched out sick in the trainer’s room with the same symptoms.

Sutcliffe kept drinking fluids and threw up a couple of times at the ballpark: “But nothing was going to keep me from pitching that game.”

The former Chicago Cub pitched brilliantly. The game took 2:02. Cleveland’s Kenny Lofton, the first batter, flied to right. That was followed by Glenallen Hill’s fly to center and Carlos Baerga’s fly to right.

Paul Sorrento of Cleveland had the ballpark’s first hit. The Orioles’ Chris Hoiles and Bill Ripken each had an RBI in the fifth for the Orioles runs.

Before the ninth inning, Oates approached Sutcliffe in the dugout.

“He just looked at me,” Sutcliffe says.”I said, “What?’ And, he said, ‘Never mind.’ “

Sutcliffe completed the game, getting Baerga on a grounder, Albert Belle on a pop and Sorrento on a called strikeout in the ninth. Sutcliffe struck out six, walked one and gave up five hits.

Sutcliffe’s complete-game tenacity was something Oates wanted young pitchers Mussina and Ben McDonald to witness.

“The Indians were a young team, so I wanted to fill the strike zone with everything I had,’’ Sutcliffe says. “There are times you pitch around guys, but on that day, I tried to throw as many strikes as possible.”

As he walked off the mound, high-fiving teammates on a memorable day in Orioles history, he could see his wife’s emotion.

“The Cubs quit on me and so many people thought I was done,” Sutcliffe says. “She knew how hard I had worked. That game was a defining moment that said everything’s going to be OK.”

At least, that was true for his pitching. When he got home, Sutcliffe was still sick. “While the whole city was celebrating, I was in bed at 7 p.m.,’’ he says. “I was saving the celebration for another day.”