Don Sutton, RIP: Craftsman (har, har)

Don Sutton only looked like a surfer dude.

Last year’s sad parade of Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields waited at least until spring to begin. This year’s began with the year a mere seven days old and the nation battered by the Capitol riot a day earlier. Tommy Lasorda died of heart failure on 7 January; one of his pitchers, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, died of cancer Tuesday night.

Sutton got to the Hall of Fame by way of his unique durability. In 23 major league seasons he didn’t miss a starting assignment until his last season, 1988. He earned credit for 324 wins despite having a 20-win season only once (in 1976, winning 21). He led his league three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio and four in walks/hits per inning pitched but never led in strikeouts while leading his league in earned run average only once.

That’s despite spending his career in pitcher-friendly home ballparks. Sutton wasn’t too gapingly different on the road; enemy batters hit .247 against him on their home turf and .226 against him on his home turf, with a .606 OPS on his grounds and a .678 OPS on theirs. His forte was workman-like speed changing, smarts, and guile, heh heh heh.

As of this morning, Baseball-Reference lists Sutton as the number 73 starting pitcher of all time with the most-similar pitcher being fellow Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Most similar doesn’t exactly mean equal value, of course; Perry is slightly above the peak and career value averages for Hall of Fame pitchers and Sutton is somewhat below those averages.

All aboard for fun time? Like Perry, Sutton was suspected very frequently of, shall we say, extracurricular craftsmanship on the mound. Like Perry, Sutton knew how to ride the suspicions well enough, even if he wasn’t half as dedicated to psychological warfare as Perry was.

Both men had mischievous senses of humour about the suspicions versus the actualities. If Perry titled his memoir Me and the Spitter and went through a famous series of motions from head to torso when he wanted hitters just to think he was going to grease them, Sutton didn’t have any particular trademark suspect gestures.

Perry looked like the Carolinas peanut farmer he was in the off-season; Sutton, despite his Alabama sharecropping roots, resembled the classic California surf rat from his rookie season to his Hall of Fame induction speech. Perry preferred to live rent-free in a hitter’s head; Sutton preferred tweaking the powers that were.

Sutton took to leaving tiny notes in the fingers of his glove for umpires to discover when they or a protesting manager thought it wise to have him patted down and frisked on the mound. A classic: “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.”

After frequent enough accusations that “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it,” Sutton actually got just that. “The only fun I get now,” he once said to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, “is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find them when they search me.”

“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller told Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

Nobody expected Sutton to sue longtime respected umpire Doug Harvey when the latter ejected him over a “defaced” ball in 1978. While pitching against the Cardinals and leading 2-1 in the seventh on 14 July, Harvey gave Sutton the ho-heave. “I’m not saying Sutton was defacing it,” Harvey told reporters. “I’m saying he was pitching a defaced baseball and the rules state that anyone pitching a defaced ball shall be ejected from the park.”

United Press said the “defacement” may have involved Sutton scratching a mark into the ball with his fingernail. “I have one thing to say and then no questions,” he told reporters. “On the advice of my attorney, I’m to say nothing about this. I’m filing suit against Doug Harvey, the National League and whoever runs the umpiring.”

Said Lasorda, who played the game under protest: “[Harvey] is judge and jury, and depriving Sutton of his right to pitch. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that; it’s the first time he’s ever been ejected.”

“It was not the first confrontation over doctored balls between Harvey and Sutton,” UPI noted. “At other times in his twelve‐year career, the pitcher has been accused of scratching the ball with his fingernail to rough the surface for a better grip.”

Sutton’s lawsuit didn’t exactly set new legal precedent. It didn’t exactly get far enough to set one, let us say. Since the only verified implement he used was his fingernail, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of applying a foreign substance. (“I don’t use foreign substances,” one-time Yankee pitcher George Frazier snarked. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”)

But about a decade later, when Sutton was an Angel after some traveling from the Dodgers to the Astros, the Brewers, and the Athletics, he squared off in Anaheim Stadium against Tommy John, a former Dodger teammate then with the Yankees, and a pitcher Boswell described as able “to turn a tiny scratch into a double play grounder.”

Sutton during his years as a popular Braves broadcaster.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, watching from his Tampa home, decided Sutton was being a little too blatant about things, calling the Yankee dugout and manager Lou Piniella. Steinbrenner demanded Piniella have Sutton frisked, arrested, arraigned, bound over, tried, convicted, and executed on the spot. Piniella tried to reason with The Boss.

“George, do you know what the score is?” Piniella asked, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, referring to the early 1-0 Yankee lead. “George, if I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know that the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ’s doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone for now.”

John was lifted after six and a third innings; Sutton pitched seven full. Each man surrendered a pair of earned runs, including Sutton surrendering a bomb to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. After the 3-2 Yankee win, Madden and Klein recorded, a scout in the press box said, “Tommy John against Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Sutton may have been puckish about his reputation for baseball carpentry but he often admitted candidly that he took baseball to be serious work perhaps too often. He was described often enough as a kind of blithe spirit but it seems to have been his way of protecting himself against the contradictions of the jock shop.

“[M]ost of us have similar abilities,” he once said, of fellow ballplayers and of people in general. “The differences are mental and emotional and the big thing is mental preparation. That’s where everything starts: the poise, the confidence, the concentration.” It didn’t hurt that Sutton’s rookie 1966 saw him the number four man behind a pair of Hall of Famers named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and a stolid number three in Claude Osteen, either.

Raised a devout Christian, Sutton didn’t buy into Lasorda’s Big Dodger in the Sky routines or the manager’s celebrity style, probably because his first manager Walter Alston was the polar opposite and a man Sutton respected deeply for rejecting celebrity and respecting his players as men. Sutton often called Alston the most secure man he’d ever met in baseball and praised the manager for keeping problems and questions with his players behind closed doors.

Sometimes, Sutton discovered the hard way that a little honesty can get you into a nasty spat. When he was an Astro and admitted he hoped he could finish his career on the West Coast where his wife and children still lived, it provoked Astros general manager Al Rosen—who once ended his playing career early due to injuries and a desire to be more a family man—to spar with him in the press.

When still a Dodger in 1978, Sutton said candidly and somewhat benignly that similarly quiet outfielder Reggie Smith was the actual most valuable Dodger, praising the talented and silent Smith because he wasn’t “a facade or a Madison Avenue image.” Taken as the thinly-veiled poke at popular first baseman Steve Garvey that it was, it triggered a clubhouse argument turned brawl between Sutton and Garvey.

John once said that during the worst of the brawl, an unidentified Dodger hollered to break it up because they might kill each other—to which catcher Joe Ferguson replied, “Good.” The problem was that Sutton was actually right. Garvey’s OPS was .843 and his OPS+ for 1977-78 was 130. For the same two seasons, Smith’s OPS was .974 and his OPS+ was 165. Garvey also hit into 22 more double plays than Smith in that span, too. Garvey was worth 8.5 wins above replacement-level for those two seasons, but Smith was worth 10.6.

“I’ve tried over and over to figure out why this had to happen,” Sutton told reporters subsequently. “The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn’t being lived according to what I know, as a Christian, to be right.” That from the pitcher who once ruffled feathers, especially Lasorda’s, by saying unapologetically, “I believe in God, not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

“It took a big man to say what Don said,” said Lasorda himself, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sutton, “and it took God to inspire him to say it.”

Sutton’s post-pitching life was mostly as a popular Braves broadcaster, where their fans reveled as much in Sutton’s easygoing repartee as in the turnaround of the Braves from the gutter to greatness. (The Braves elected him to their team Hall of Fame in due course.) He was also an enthusiastic Hall of Fame presence following his own election in 1998.

As a rookie during the once-fabled Koufax-Drysdale joint contract holdout of spring 1966, Sutton took the long view in due course. “Baseball players today,” he told Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, “owe a lot to Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. But Flood, Messersmith, and McNally owed a lot to Koufax and Drysdale. Because they were the first guys who really took a stand. This was the first challenge to the structure of baseball.”

At the Hall of Fame Sutton let himself be plain human. In the same speech in which he thanked Koufax for teaching him how to act like a baseball professional, he began by saying, “I’ve wanted this for forty years. Why am I now shaking like a leaf?” Then, he answered his own question: “I think part of it is because I’m standing in front of some of the people who were the greatest artists in a wonderful business that I’ve ever seen before.”

The man who often called himself a journeyman hack appreciated the art of the game, and of his own craft, after all. May the Lord in whom his faith was profound enough have welcomed Sutton home with the same appreciation.

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