On Dec. 9, 1980, in a trade that successfully altered the course of the franchise, the Cardinals acquired closer Bruce Sutter from the Cubs for first baseman Leon Durham, third baseman Ken Reitz and utility player Ty Waller.
Sutter gave the Cardinals the workhorse closer they had been lacking. With Sutter as the anchor, manager Whitey Herzog built a reliable and deep bullpen that handcuffed the opposition and took pressure off the St. Louis starters.
Sutter, so dominant that he would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was a key to turning the Cardinals from underachievers throughout the 1970s to World Series champions in 1982.
In his first year with St. Louis, the strike-hampered 1981 season, Sutter had a National League-leading 25 saves. In 1982, he led the NL in saves again, with 36.
In the five seasons before Sutter’s arrival, no Cardinals reliever had recorded more than 13 saves. The team saves totals were 26 in 1976, 31 in 1977, 22 in 1978, 25 in 1979 and 27 in 1980.
At the 1980 baseball winter meetings in Dallas, Herzog, who had the dual role of general manager and manager, completed a multiplayer deal in which he acquired closer Rollie Fingers from the Padres. He still wanted Sutter, who had won the 1979 National League Cy Young Award, envisioning, as he called it, “a bullpen for the ages.”
Because he had signed free-agent catcher Darrell Porter, Herzog wanted to move catcher Ted Simmons to first base and first baseman Keith Hernandez to left field.
When Herzog first talked with the Cubs about Sutter, Chicago general manager Bob Kennedy asked for Durham, Waller and second baseman Tom Herr, Herzog wrote in the book, “White Rat, A Life in Baseball” (Harper & Row, 1987).
Herzog offered Hernandez instead of Herr.
“I offered them Keith Hernandez in a package deal,” Herzog wrote in the book, “You’re Missin’ A Great Game” (Simon & Schuster, 1999). “But … Kennedy didn’t want to take on that big salary. Instead, we had to offer … Durham, along with our slow-footed third baseman, Kenny Reitz. They bit.”
When Simmons balked at moving to first base and Fingers indicated he might have a problem sharing the closer’s role with Sutter, Herzog shipped Simmons, Fingers and pitcher Pete Vuckovich to the Brewers for pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen and oufielders David Green and Sixto Lezcano.
Using a split-fingered pitch Herzog described as looking “like a rock skipping on water _ tough to pick up, let alone hit,” Sutter was the stopper Herzog desired.
“When I got to St. Louis, I was sure I got myself a top-flight closer,” Herzog wrote. “…I realized it was smarter to start building my staff at the back, with that one potent guy, and move forward from there. I’d get that guy who could shut the door the last two innings, cut the other guy’s chance from 27 (outs) to 21, and hope my starters were good enough to get me through the sixth (inning).”
Sutter changed the dymanics of the game for the Cardinals. “Sutter might be the most important pitcher I ever had,” Herzog wrote. “He was sure the best relief pitcher I ever saw.”