KANSAS CITY -- Rick Sutcliffe pitched in the Majors for 18 years, and he won some prestigious awards.
He was the 1979 National League Rookie of the Year, an award first won by and now named for Jackie Robinson. He won the 1984 NL Cy Young Award. He won the 1987 Roberto Clemente Award. But as Sutcliffe pointed out, he didn't know Robinson or Young or Clemente.
But Sutcliffe did know Buck O'Neil, for whom the Legacy Award he received on Wednesday night is named. Sutcliffe, now an ESPN analyst, and Bob Page, CEO of the University of Kansas Hospital, were honored for their support of O'Neil's pet project, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
"This one separates itself from anything that's ever happened to me before in baseball, and I mean it. It's not just words," Sutcliffe said.
"I knew Buck O'Neil, I knew him well. We were playing golf one time and he said that I was like a son to him. I don't know that I've ever received a nicer compliment. I had breakfast with him, I had dinner with him, I traveled with him, I spoke many times with him. We did so many things together, and that's the separation on this one. Every time I think of him, it just guides me toward trying to be a better person."
The awards were made on the occasion of O'Neil's 102nd birthday anniversary. He passed away in 2006 after devoting himself to a life in baseball and many years to the museum.
Before the ceremony, Sutcliffe noted that he's coming up on his 19th season as a broadcast analyst, meaning he's been doing that longer than he pitched in the Majors -- 18 years for the Dodgers, Indians, Cubs, Orioles and Cardinals.
Naturally, he has some analytical thoughts on why the Royals emerged as a Wild Card contender this year. No surprise, it has to do with pitching.
"I think they finally realized the value of an ace and what an ace can do for a club," Sutcliffe said, citing the addition of James Shields.
"When you've got a horse, when you've got that guy you can count on for eight innings no matter what, that's valuable, and he proved it. He can go out there and give up four in the first and he's still around through seven or eight. And they haven't had that guy since, well, I go back to [Bret] Saberhagen."
With no ace like Shields before the trade that sent outfielder Wil Myers to the Rays, Sutcliffe saw Royals manager Ned Yost burning up his bullpen game after game.
"It was unfair. But the night before Shields pitches, [Yost] could unload that bullpen," Sutcliffe continued. "He can bring in [Tim Collins], he can bring in [Aaron Crow], he bring in [Luke Hochevar] -- he can unload it. And what happens after Shields pitches? All those boys have had two days off and they're ready to go again.
"So that horse -- whether he wins or not -- helps you win three out of five times. And, of course, Shields pitching Opening Day is going to go up against everybody else's ace. You're going to line him up against [Max Scherzer], everybody else's big boys. What does that do? It gives [Jeremy Guthrie] and all the other guys a chance to face the guys that they can succeed with. So, you can see Wil Myers winning the Rookie of the Year -- that's great -- but now Kansas City has a template on what it takes to win."
Sutcliffe lives in the Kansas City area and follows the team closely but not as a broadcaster.
"In 18 years with ESPN, I've never done a Royals game," he said. "I live six minutes from The K and I've never once had the chance."
Maybe next year. ESPN likes to show contenders on those Monday night telecasts.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com.