Don Sutton tools into the Santa Ana Lincoln-Mercury lot in his '55 Chevy, the venerable machine assuming a cumbersome dignity as it eases into a parking space between two downsized contemporary vehicles. Sutton is amused by the attention his vintage car is attracting from salesmen and customers alike, for he isn't above shaking people up from time to time. Besides, the Chevy, an incandescent Bel Air in hues of "coral and sand" that is especially prized by car buffs, was greatly sought after in its own time, and that for Sutton lends it symbolic importance. "This is the car I couldn't afford when I was growing up in Pensacola," he says, patting the corrugated steering wheel. "This is what the other kids were driving down to the Echo Lanes bowling alley. I'm no classic car purist. I don't want to cuddle and love a machine. I just want an old car to drive."
Sutton alights from the Chevy. He is a lean man with an upright posture that makes him appear taller than his 6'1". He has a thin, bright-eyed face that is topped off incongruously by an explosion of curly brown hair touched with gray. "My hair is really straight," he explains. "I get permanents. I sit in the beauty parlor under the dryer reading Mademoiselle with my legs crossed." He is in bubbling good humor this morning. The night before, he and his wife, Patti, had entertained 65 for dinner in their splendid new home in Laguna Hills, one of the numerous contiguous communities that make up Orange County on the California coast. The guest list included 21 of Sutton's 24 Houston Astro teammates, who were with him in Southern California to play a weekend series with the San Diego Padres. "It was terrific," says Sutton, nodding cordially at his car's admirers. "We had a country-western band, the works. The whole thing was catered by Jim Shea's Porta-Pig, or whatever, and there wasn't a bite left. We've got some guys on our club who can eat with Tommy Lasorda."
Sutton peers into the office of Ken Kaiden, the car dealership's general sales manager. Sutton does promotional work for the dealership, which this morning will involve cutting three radio commercials at KNOB-FM in nearby Anaheim. Sutton takes the scripts Kaiden has prepared for him and reads them as carefully as if they were drafts of a State of the Union address. "Oh, I like this," he says. " 'Previously owned automobiles.' I guess that means used cars. Clever, clever."
"What are you driving, Don?" Kaiden inquires.
"You had to ask, didn't you? My '55 Chevy, of course."
"We'll take my car."
On the way to the station in Kaiden's Lincoln Continental, Sutton, who would dearly love to be pitching this season for the California Angels, sighs dramatically as Anaheim Stadium comes into view. "My home is here in Orange County," he says. "My corporation [a mini-conglomerate called SuttCor International] has its offices here. I own a restaurant and a delicatessen here. I'm a good friend of [Angel General Manager] Buzzie Bavasi's. And that ball park is 20 minutes from my house. Oh, well."
Sutton chides Kaiden for parking his car in a 20-minute zone in the radio station's lot. Inside, he advises a KNOB producer that "we'll have to do these in one take. Ken here has given us only 20 minutes." It requires close to 10 takes for Sutton to be satisfied with his readings—"It's like going three and two on the hitter"—because he takes his radio work very seriously. "It's what I want to be when I grow up," he says. The commercials—"Hi, I'm Don Sutton for Santa Ana Lincoln-Mercury"—sound not at all like the work of a ballplayer picking up an extra buck. They are entirely professional, free of flaw or mumble.
Sutton masks his seriousness about life and obsession with perfection with a blithe manner that the uninitiated might confuse with flippancy. He protects the vulnerable underside of his nature with the quickest wit in baseball. In a game in which shouted profanity passes for Ernst Lubitsch dialogue and the hot foot represents grand farce, Sutton stands apart as genuinely clever. He refers to himself as "nothing more than a semipolished hick," but one senses that he wouldn't have been overmatched trading zingers at the Algonquin Round Table. "He's not the kind of guy you want to get into verbal battle with," says Red Adams, his old pitching coach with the Dodgers. "He's quick with the whip."
Sutton's sharp tongue invariably lands him in the soup, but he can no more suppress it than he can his will to win. It bubbles forth even in moments of greatest stress. His comment after his famous clubhouse fight with Steve Garvey four years ago—preceding a tearful televised apology—was a case in point: "I know you won't believe this. We had a slight disagreement. I couldn't convince Garvey that the Southeastern Conference is as good as the Big Ten." On one of the many occasions he was accused of doctoring the baseball with a "foreign substance," Sutton replied, "Not true at all. Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States of America."
Broadcasting will be Sutton's career when he's finished with baseball, and he has been working at it steadily since the winter of 1969, when he did a five-hour disk jockey show on Saturdays and Sundays for a country-western station in Burbank. In 1978 he filled in as a sports-caster on the 11 o'clock news for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. On his last show, he was pictured interviewing himself, the double images facing each other. After both the interviewer and interviewee reached the conclusion—simultaneously, you might say—that Don Sutton was a great pitcher, a somewhat haughty ballplayer Sutton turned to meek broadcaster Sutton and asked, "How come they sent a rookie out here to interview a veteran player like me?"
Sutton's model as a ballplayer-broadcaster has been Don Drysdale, his old Dodger teammate, who now does play-by-play for the Chicago White Sox. "Don really prepared himself for broadcasting," says Sutton, who, in his rookie year of 1966, was called Little D, to Drysdale's Big D. "He carried a tape recorder around with him everywhere. But he didn't really get started until near the end of his career. That inspired me to start earlier." Drysdale and his esteemed teammate Sandy Koufax were Sutton's mentors in all respects. "The best thing that could have happened to me was to join a team with Drysdale and Koufax [who retired after the 1966 season]," says Sutton. "They were obviously helpful to me as a pitcher. They offered me nothing but encouragement, and Don gave me my first scouting report on Hank Aaron. 'High and inside,' he'd say, 'then the slider.' 'What if you don't have a slider?' I asked him. 'Then,' he said, 'I wouldn't go out there at all.' They were both so unselfish. When I began breaking their Dodger records, they'd never fail to call or wire. I have their records, but I wouldn't ask anyone to compare me with them."
It may seem remarkable to some that Sutton, not Drysdale or Koufax, has virtually every important Dodger career pitching record: most wins (230), games (534), games started (517), strikeouts (2,652), innings pitched (3,728) and shutouts (52). Sutton's career ERA of 3.07 as a Dodger is third to Koufax' 2.76 and Drysdale's 2.95. Only Zack Wheat, with 18 years, and Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider, with 16, played longer for the Dodgers than Sutton, who, with Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo, lasted 15.
A few hours after he taped the commercials, Sutton went for and missed his 249th career win in San Diego. When he passes 250, he will be among the 33 winningest pitchers in baseball history. His 55 shutouts rank him 11th on the all-time list. And on June 16 he passed Cy Young to take over 10th place on the strikeout list with 2,824. If he doesn't retire first, he will become only the eighth pitcher to strike out more than 3,000 batters. He's a long shot for 300 wins, the true hallmark of pitching excellence, but it's one of his goals. And he has done all this with only one 20-plus-win season (21 in '76) and with a fastball that, he says, can hit 85 mph "only when I'm pitching downhill with the wind behind me."
What Sutton does have—and what he has had since his rookie year—is one of baseball's finest curveballs, a crackling bender that he throws with pinpoint accuracy. He also has a deceptive changeup and a slider that breaks so sharply, says Red Adams, that "if I had it, I'd call it my curveball." "He's the master of all his pitches, a total pleasure to catch," says his Houston catcher, Alan Ashby. "He's a scientist out there," says Astro relief ace Joe Sambito. "He's under control all the time. He doesn't challenge the batters with his speed, he challenges them with his stuff."
"He emits an air of professionalism," says former Dodger pitching mate Burt Hooton. "He's the same whether he's getting his tail kicked or tearing up the joint."
"He has such a variety of pitches that he's never dependent on just one," says his teammate and new friend, Nolan Ryan. "He has the versatility to adjust. A two-pitch pitcher like me can have problems if one of them—with me, the curve—isn't getting over. Don can just go to something else."
And just what might that something else be? Sutton has long been accused by rival players and managers of throwing a ball that has been tampered with in some illegal respect. Sparky Anderson, who scrutinized him as manager of the Reds, says he uses sandpaper. Others say he used to scrape the ball on his belt buckle, when there were such things on baseball uniforms. Umpire Doug Harvey once ejected him for throwing a defaced ball—the now famous "scuff ball" affair of 1978—although Harvey admitted he had no evidence that Sutton did the defacing. Dodger Coach Monty Basgall, who first scouted him, says Sutton takes advantage of every blemish or nick a ball might receive in the course of being batted around. "He doesn't need much to turn it to his advantage," says Basgall. "He can make that ball talk. And if it's so easy to do that, why doesn't everybody do it?" Umpires searching Sutton for incriminating evidence have reached into his uniform pockets to find notes reading NOT HERE or YOU'RE GETTING WARMER Or ASK SPARKY, HE KNOWS EVERYTHING.
Sutton, like that other longtime suspect Gaylord Perry, feels these accusations give him, essentially, a fifth pitch—one that exists only in the batter's mind. Says Sutton, "If a hitter is more concerned with examining the ball than hitting it, then I say fine. You'll notice that the people accused of doing something to the ball are those of us with lesser ability who win more than we lose. Nolan Ryan, who just blows people away, is never accused. And nobody accused me of anything the time I went 10 weeks without winning a game. There were many more accusations when I was 19-9 than when I was 11-15."
Sutton considered himself to be a professional ballplayer by age 11. "Other kids my age were playing for fun. I was playing to get to the big leagues. It was all just training for me. Everything was a stepping-stone. I don't know that I ever had a childhood. Maybe that's why I'm having it now." Sutton's father, Howard, was a tenant farmer in Clio, Ala. when Don, the oldest of three children, was born on April 2, 1945. When the boy was five, the family moved to a farm 25 miles outside of Pensacola, where the elder Sutton was paid a living wage—"$100 a month, guaranteed. No trade, no cut."
Sutton speaks fondly of life in northwest Florida, a part of the state that is really Deep South in mood and pace. "Life was simple and uncomplicated, the way I like it," he says. "The people were friendly. The climate was hot and humid. It was slow. We'd have picnics on the Fourth of July and go fishing on Memorial Day." His dad became his role model. "He married at 17 and had only a seventh-grade education, but he'd work on the farm all day and then go to night school. He finally got his high school diploma and things opened up for him. He was an excellent carpenter, and he went to work for a construction company. Now he heads the concrete division of a large construction outfit down there. I think you can see that the work ethic was ingrained in me a long time ago. That's why I feel comfortable working at my profession the year round. I am never not in training."
"He's an odd guy in a way," Basgall says of his discovery. "He's very independent. He knows what he wants, and he goes after it." "Don's the kind of guy you either like or you don't," says former teammate Bill Russell. "But he speaks his mind, and you've got to respect that." "He's as honest as anybody I've ever met," says the Dodgers' Jerry Reuss. "He doesn't spare anybody's feelings when he's telling the truth."
"I started working on the farm when I was in the eighth grade—at 65 cents an hour," says Sutton. "I fixed fences, chased cows, halterbroke cattle, cleaned out stalls, mowed lawns, drove the tractor, anything. I loved it. I could buy my own clothes. I didn't have to ask anybody for money. I'd work 11,12 hours on the farm and play ball two nights a week. When I wasn't actually playing a game, I'd do my running [Sutton was a runner years before jogging became the opiate of the middle class] and then open the garage doors and hang a dense straw mat on the wall and throw against it by the hour. I knew then where I wanted to go.
"I've been fortunate. Every time I've needed somebody, they've always been there. My sixth-grade teacher, Henry Roper, pitched in the Giants' organization. I hounded him until he taught me some things. He got me throwing breaking balls when I was behind the hitter. All young hitters are looking for the fastball then. It was a break with convention. I learned how to throw a curve by raising my index finger and digging the tip into the ball. I have small hands—unlike someone like Koufax, who had long fingers and could wrap them around the ball—so I use a different grip for every one of my pitches. I've had so many people influence me. Monty Basgall, who had the courage to sign me—me, a skinny kid with not much of a fastball. Red Adams, a great pitching coach and a great friend, a guy who told me not what I wanted to hear but what I needed to hear. Koufax and Drysdale, who taught me how to eat, dress and talk as well as pitch. And [Dodger Manager] Walter Alston, the most secure man I've ever met. I never saw him shirk responsibility. He always took the heat off the players, even when all the geniuses who watch baseball were looking for someone to blame. Walter let me go into his office and vent my frustrations behind closed doors. He'd listen, then tell me what should be done. He never held grudges. One of the most rewarding things in my life was the inscription he wrote to me in a copy of his autobiography: 'When it's on the line, I want you to have the ball.' If you can't get fired up by something like that, you have no pulse."
Alston, in retirement now in Darrtown, Ohio, chuckles at his recollections of Sutton. "He was a cocky little freshman who thought he knew all the answers," Alston says. "He needed a lesson, so I told him he could go down to the bullpen and work his way out. I told him I'd call him when I needed him. I think that shook him up a little. But he only missed a turn or two. I really think a lot of Don. He was always at his best the bigger the stakes were. He was a great team man. Sure, he was stubborn, but so was I. You have to admire a guy like that. There's nothing wrong with saying what you think. And Don could back it up."
Sutton remained an Alston man, a survivor from another, less theatrical time, when Lasorda introduced Dodger Blue to an unsuspecting fandom in 1977. A reporter asked Sutton whom he would name as manager if he had a choice. Sutton said he'd like to see his friend Jeff Torborg get the job, although he knew full well it was a "foregone conclusion" at the time that Lasorda, a Dodger coach, would succeed Alston. Sutton said he was simply asked a question, and he answered it truthfully. But Lasorda wasn't pleased. It was apparent that Sutton, the senior Dodger, was not an ally and wasn't comfortable with the new manager's show-biz approach. Don Rickles may have been a regular in Lasorda's salon, but a truer iconoclast resided outside his office in the Dodger clubhouse.
"I always regarded the Big Dodger in the Sky as somewhat sacrilegious," Sutton says now. He was raised in the Bible Belt, but he only made the final commitment to become a born-again Christian in the past two years. Besides, he says, Orange County is the Bible Belt of Southern California. "For all I know," says Sutton, "God may not even like baseball. He may be a football fan. Under any circumstances, I don't think He should be considered a pocket good-luck charm that you can pull out when you need it. I know Tommy didn't mean it disrespectfully. He's just a gung-ho, emotional man. He goes sky-high over a win and hits a deep depression over a loss. Walter always said you should never gloat on the peaks and never stay in the valleys. I spent so many of my years with Walter, the transition was very difficult for me. It took me years to understand Tommy. I still don't necessarily agree with him, but at least I think I understand him. For that matter, I doubt whether he agreed with a lot of my hanging curve-balls. Because we disagreed doesn't make either of us wrong. We both wanted to win. I'll say this for Tommy, he's one of baseball's best salesmen. He eats, sleeps and talks baseball. I doubt if he ever dreams about anything but baseball. That's the difference between us. Baseball is just one of the interests in my life. I like to think that if I hadn't been good at this game, I'd have been just as good at something else."
Garvey, who then lived with his family only three doors away from the Suttons in the San Fernando Valley town of Calabasas, was another Dodger icon Sutton had trouble accepting. To his teammates, Garvey has always seemed too good to be true. Underneath the goody-two-shoes facade, they seemed to be saying, was a cynical con artist. Most of Garvey's critics on the Dodgers kept their resentment to themselves. Not Sutton. In an interview with Tom Boswell of The Washington Post in mid-August of 1978, Sutton's sulphurous tongue found its mark once more.
"All you hear about on our team is Steve Garvey, the All-American boy," Sutton told Boswell. "Well, the best player on this team for the last two years—and we all know it—is Reggie Smith. Reggie doesn't go out and publicize himself. He doesn't smile at the right people or say the right things.... Reggie's not a facade or a Madison Avenue image. He's a real person."
Garvey, not without cause, was unhappy. The story made him look like a phony. He waited until after Sutton had completed his regular pitching turn; then, on Aug. 20, in the clubhouse at Shea Stadium, he approached his critic halfan hour before a game with the Mets. Did you say those things? he asked. Sutton, of course, said he did. A discussion followed which appeared to be simply an ironing out of a misunderstanding between two intelligent young men. But Garvey, according to Sutton, has the disagreeable habit of emphasizing his points with a finger jab to the chest. And Sutton, Garvey said, made a reference to Cyndy Garvey that was less than gallant. As Garvey underlined his objection to this new conversational tack with his finger, Sutton shoved him forcefully. In a trice, the two were on the clubhouse floor, grappling with and clawing at each other. It took other players and team officials some two minutes to separate them. No real damage was done—both had minor scratches and bruises and Garvey had a red eye into which a Sutton finger had somehow found its way—and the Dodgers went on to win the game and ultimately go on a streak that won them the pennant.
But the carefully nurtured image of the Dodgers as one big happy family suffered irreparable damage. From then on, it was Dodger Black and Blue. Sutton insists now, four years later, that the incident was "insignificant, irrelevant. It was something that came on gradually and basically had nothing to do with baseball. The whole thing was over and done with in three days as far as he and I were concerned. I never considered the Dodgers family. I only have one family."
After his initial flippant dismissal, an obviously disturbed Sutton apologized publicly for the incident four days later in the clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. His eyes were moist as he read from a prepared statement: "For the last few days, I have thought of nothing else and I've tried over and over to figure out why this all had to happen. The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn't being lived according to what I know, as a human being and a Christian, to be right. If it were, then there would not have been an article in which I would offend any of my teammates."
"Substantially, that incident proved that I'm a human being who makes mistakes," Sutton said recently. "I probably make more than the average person. But I try to rectify them. I'm spontaneous. When a situation arises, I respond off the top of my head. If I find I'm wrong, I probably don't admit it right away, but I still have no qualms about rectifying the wrong. I find it better to respond and rectify than not respond at all. If you're going to be a spontaneous person, you've got to be willing to say you're sorry."
Garvey apparently wasn't convinced that Sutton was sorry enough. The apology, he said, was public, but it wasn't made to him personally. In some conversations after that, Garvey would make references to the jealousy of certain teammates. Asked recently to comment on his present feelings toward Sutton, Garvey said, "I'd rather not talk about that," an astonishing response from someone who almost never pleads no comment. Sutton isn't one to hold a grudge, but in extolling the virtues of his new Astro teammates a short time ago, he said dryly, "We don't have any players on this team who think everyone else is jealous of them. We don't have any soap operas."
The year 1978 was a troublesome one for Sutton. Only a month before the Garvey imbroglio, umpire Harvey tossed him out of a game with St. Louis for pitching a defaced baseball to Mike Tyson. Tyson had flied out to rightfield to end the sixth inning, and when Dodger Right-fielder Rick Monday rolled the ball back into the infield, Harvey scooped it up and gave it the once-over. Twice, earlier in the game, he had warned Sutton to stop throwing imperfect balls to Cardinal hitters. Now he felt he had the evidence to eject the pitcher. Tyson was ordered to hit again, and, with Lance Rautzhan pitching in Sutton's stead, he flied out to Monday once more to end the inning a second time. Sutton, who had been seeking his 200th win, was now subject to an automatic 10-day suspension, according to baseball rules. He threatened to sue Harvey and all of baseball, if necessary, for depriving him of his livelihood if the suspension were to be imposed. It never was, and the "scuff ball" caper took its place in the annals of the bizarre.
Sutton's four-year, $1 million contract with the Dodgers was to expire in 1980, and before that season he began campaigning for a trade. He was merely seeking a business advantage, he now explains. If the Dodgers shipped him to another team, he could negotiate a new contract from the strength of his impending free-agent status. He could get a handsome contract without bothering with free agency. At the same time, he rather hoped the Dodgers would see the light and sign him to a respectable new contract—say, $4 million for five years. Sutton says now that though a trade intrigued him, he basically wanted to finish out his career with the team he had always played for, setting team records that might never be matched, having his uniform number retired and being feted at a night in his honor, as Drysdale had been before him. He knew that it means more to be honored by a team with such a rich history than by one deficient in tradition.
But the Dodgers held fast to an offer of two years at $500,000 per. Baseball is still a business, and Sutton was 35, as used as his old Chevy. (Garvey, ironically, finds himself in a similar situation this year as his contract expires.) Miffed, Sutton reported late to spring training in 1980, a holdout of sorts. This created more unrest among players who, partly because of Garvey vs. Sutton, felt free at last to be their testy selves. "I'm sick and tired of his act," said Catcher Joe Ferguson of Sutton's holdout. "I have been for 10 years, and he knows it." Sutton, much amused, turned the tables on Ferguson only a short time later when the catcher asked to be traded. "I'm sick and tired of your act," he told Ferguson.
Sutton did report to Vero Beach that year, and all he did during the season was win 13 games and lose only five while leading the National League with a 2.21 ERA. But the Dodgers didn't retain their rights to him in the free-agent draft that November and, after some flirtation with George Steinbrenner and a parting shot at the Dodgers for not practicing what they preach about family togetherness, Sutton signed with the Astros for a reported $3.15 million over four years (with the team having the option to renew after the third year). Nevertheless, it was a wrenching experience, leaving the only major league organization he had ever known. It was even tougher on his family, he concedes, because the Dodgers have always been kind to women and children. "I think if Patti and the kids [Daron, 12, and Staci, 8] had had their way, they would have signed on for another year with the Dodgers and let me go to Houston."
That, as a matter of fact, is nearly what happened. The Sutton marriage had been on rocky ground for some time. Patti is an emotional, outgoing person who requires a certain amount of attention. Sutton, a stoic Southerner for all of his Southern California affability, is more closed, guarded. From childhood he has been an organized, goal-directed person. Everything had its place—job, family, religion. The sensitivity he now so openly expresses was submerged. Even his old friends on the Dodgers found Sutton to be a piece of work. "I don't know that anybody here was ever that close to Don," says Ron Cey, "but then I could say the same thing about myself. So much of our lives is public, you keep certain parts private. One moment you feel you know and understand Don, the next you don't." Says Hooton, "Don has about as complex a personality as anyone I've ever met. He's a very generous individual who'll talk to anyone while the rest of us just say 'Hi' and keep going. At the same time, he's an extremely competitive person."
Days at the Sutton household began with Don closing Patti off by reading the newspaper at the breakfast table. His life apart from her on the road had always created problems. There was talk of other women. Patti admitted in a recent interview with PEOPLE magazine that she had had misgivings from the very moment of their wedding on Oct. 11, 1968. She had been raised in comfortable affluence in Southern California; he had risen from tenant farmboy to glamorous major league star. When he told her on one of their first dates that he played for the Dodgers, she answered brightly, "Oh, yes, I've seen the lights [of Dodger Stadium] from the freeway." She was afraid she had married a stranger. He, like many a man before him, couldn't seem to figure out just what it was women really wanted. Didn't she have everything—money, kids, a nice home?
And there was the not inconsiderable matter of the athlete's psyche. On a sunny afternoon in early June, the Suttons discussed their near breakup over lunch in the kitchenette of their fine home in the hills above Laguna Beach. "Most of us are used to receiving, receiving all the time," Sutton said of professional athletes. "Everything is done for us. We're not used to giving at all. There's a constant sponge effect. Our priorities get way out of whack. We tend to forget that other people also need some emotional strokes. Everyone needs to feel the space they occupy is important."
Patti Sutton, a small, lively woman, smart and talented, is two years younger than her husband. She decorated the interior of their home so that it resembles an 18th century French country house. But saving their marriage was her most important project. "I was convinced it was all over," she said. Don moved out of the Calabasas home for a month. They sought counseling, but that didn't seem to work. Then the minister of their nondenominational church, the Rev. Tim Timmons, convinced them that their problems were hardly insurmountable. "We finally concluded," Sutton said, "that marriages don't just happen, they have to be worked on. We decided to work." He put down his morning paper and started to open up. She practiced patience. "Now," she says, "the marriage is the best it's ever been. We've given ourselves and the children a far greater sense of security."
The decision to purchase the new home in Laguna Hills was part of the recovery. While she decorated the interior, he designed the yard, drawing with a stick in the dirt where he wanted the garden, the pool. They moved in last September. Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 2, Sutton's right kneecap was shattered by a Jerry Reuss pitch. "Some people will do anything to get out of moving," he quipped. But now they've got their dream home. "We had two nice houses in two nice neighborhoods," says Sutton, "but this is home. For the first time since I left Pensacola, I have someplace I can really look forward to coming home to."
As admirable as this sentiment surely is, it has brought on yet another crisis. Sutton visited Dallas when he was 12, and almost wistfully he has yearned to live there ever since. It was a sort of fantasy for him. The Astros obviously gave him a chance to realize his unusual aspiration, and, after he signed, the Suttons did look at homes in the Dallas area. But a fantasy realized can leave a strange vacancy in the soul. The Suttons didn't find what they wanted in Dallas. They took the Laguna Hills house instead, committing themselves to Southern California.
Unfortunately, Sutton had already talked too much about his affection for the Lone Star state. The style there, he had said, was better suited to an old country boy, even one who after 15 years of life in Los Angeles had developed a taste for the symphony, good books and fine wine. That said, he established a permanent home in Southern California. It wasn't that he was disillusioned with Texas; it was just that the Suttons had found their dream house. And now, for the first time, Sutton was placing top priority on his wife and children. Last November, he dropped in to see Astro President Al Rosen, and what he had to say left Rosen flabbergasted. Eleven months after he had signed his long-term contract with Houston, Sutton wanted to be traded to the California Angels.
"I was shocked, to say the least," says Rosen. "When he first came to Houston, Don seemed exceedingly happy. We thought we could win it all this year. And Don was to be an important cog. I just couldn't understand it. Oh, I fully understand Don's motivation. With the career he's had, he should be able to live where he wants to. The trouble is that a career in the game precludes that. He made his choice, after all. I just couldn't give that request credence. We're not about to trade a Don Sutton—a guy who can win 300 games and make the Hall of Fame. We're a corporation and we have stockholders to answer to. And with the amount of money we paid Don...well, I thought I made my point cogently."
Rosen hadn't counted on Sutton's stubborn streak. Sutton let his first request sink in, reasoning that Rosen would obviously need time to make the necessary arrangements. Then, after two months had passed, he again appeared in the front office to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. In the meantime, he had said on radio in Southern California that he would certainly like to be playing for somebody closer to home—like the Angels. This brought a reprimand from the Commissioner's office. The Houston papers had gotten hold of the story, and when Rosen at first denied that there was any problem, the papers got on him. Rosen was embarrassed. Also adamant. "Yes, I was angry," he says now. "Don and I got to jabbing at each other in the press. I didn't think this was something for public consumption, but after Don went on the radio..."
The Houston fans were also outraged. Sutton seemed to be a spoiled millionaire who was taking his money and running. Sutton said he was willing to return his $500,000 signing bonus if the Astros would kindly return him to Orange County. At the same time, he said he loved pitching in the Astrodome, with its dead air and long fences—"a forgiving ball park"—and that his new teammates were the nicest guys he'd ever played with or against. "Now, if we could just take the Astrodome and the Astros and move them to San Juan Capistrano, I'd be happy," he said. "I say San Juan Capistrano because it's close to my house but far enough away so I wouldn't get all the traffic. And I could just drop the kids off at school on my way to the park."
Having recovered from his knee injury, Sutton lost his first start of the season to the Braves in Atlanta. He was booed—"mercilessly," says The Houston Post's Kenny Hand—in his first start in the Dome. But he won. In fact, he won seven games in a row, and the booing stopped. Rosen was relieved. "I never want to see a player looked on with disfavor, and I said all along that Don would start his 35 games, win 18 and come in with an ERA of two and a half." At week's end, Sutton was 8-4, with an ERA of 3.16. "I'd like to win 300 games, get 3,000 strikeouts and be voted into the Hall of Fame," he says. "Those goals keep me going. They mean a lot to me. But after this season my family and I are going to see if my personal and professional goals are compatible. If we decide that our best interests would be served by my not playing any longer, then that's it. After all these years, I'm getting a little tired of raising my kids over the telephone."
In the meantime, he rolls on, accumulating numbers. After he passed Young on the strikeout list, he sat down for breakfast the next morning at Houston's Shamrock Hilton. He opened his newspaper at the table. "Let's see what the Astros did last night," he said. They had lost 5-4, in 10 innings, Sutton leaving with a 3-2 lead after the seventh when his injured knee tightened up on him. "Oops, this is the sort of thing that used to drive Patti nuts. Reading the paper. Actually, she always had my undivided attention. It just didn't look that way with the paper stuck in my face." He examined his strikeout total—seven—and set the paper aside. "It's not the numbers that count, it's the people involved. It's the names of the people who have occupied the spots I'm now reaching—Koufax, Drysdale, Cy Young. Cy Young." He shook his curly head. "They named a pretty important award after that man."
Children were playing by the massive hotel pool. Sutton watched them through the coffee-shop window. "You know, what I do for a living isn't that big a deal. That I can do it is the big deal. I'd like to keep doing it as long as I can meet my own standards. But there are bigger things. I run everything through the filter system of my Christian beliefs, but I do believe in having fun. You see a lot of Christians running around in sackcloth and ashes, not having any fun at all. I like to have a few beers with the guys. I love good California wines, particularly the Cabernets—Stags Leap, Sterling Vineyards. When I was with the Dodgers, we had tickets to the L.A. Philharmonic. A perfect weekend for me would be spent listening to Jerry Jeff Walker down at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood on Friday, then taking in the symphony at the Music Center on Saturday. Both Patti and I read a lot. We like to have pizzas with the kids on Sunday nights. We like to go out to eat at fine restaurants."
He sat back in his chair. "When I die, I'd like people to say of me that he was an honest man we could count on, who left a positive influence on his family, friends and profession. After people have forgotten what team I played for, I hope they remember me as someone who strived to be consistent and dependable."
He would have a last word, too, for those who make snap judgments about people as complicated as he. "You know, there are people who insist on deciding who and what we are with less information than they use to buy a loaf of bread." He smiled as he got up from the table. "It's not really that complicated. What I am is pretty evident, no matter what people say. I'm the stubbornest person I know. And for all the rest of it, I've never been anything but a semipolished hick. Maybe that's the best kind of hick. Maybe that's the best kind of polish."