Sad to hear of Don Sutton’s passing last month. He and I went way back. To his rookie year, 1966. Not that it was anything he knew about, you understand.
After waiting for Major League Baseball to finally arrive, my family moved from Sandy Springs to New Jersey before the Braves moved to Atlanta.
To assuage my disappointment, my father managed to score tickets to the Mets second game of the season, against the visiting Atlanta Braves.
Trust me, Shea Stadium on April 16, 1966 was among the most frigid locales on the planet. Fortunately, the game was just as brisk, lasting only 2 hours and 30 minutes. Jack Hamilton beat the Braves, 3-1. A year later he would infamously hit Tony Conigliaro in the face with a pitch.
Saturday, July 16, was a much more pleasant day to be at Big Shea. The Dodgers were in town, and so were friends visiting from Sandy Springs.
At that time, Mets fans got more enjoyment out of the banners unfurled during the games than the games themselves. Even though ’66 would be the year they finally lost fewer than 100 games, and finally escaped last place. They thundered from 10th place all the way to ninth.
In keeping with the times, we dutifully decided to create a banner. After much brainstorming, we decided to feature the opposing pitcher. The young artists headed to the basement, blank bedsheet and tempera paints in hand. Over the next several hours, they produced their masterpiece:
AGAINST THE METS, SUTTON IS NUTTON
Word on the street was that banner produced my first television appearance, but those claims have never been substantiated. The technology for taping television shows remained far into the future.
But from that day forward, after he overcame our vicious banner and beat the Mets, 7-1, with a complete game five-hitter (losing the shoutout in the ninth), I followed Sutton’s career with keen interest.
He went 12-12 with a 2.99 ERA that year, pitching in a rotation with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen. Those four started 154 of the Dodgers 162 games. Imagine.
That was an indication of things to come. Over his 23-year career, Sutton became one of the most durable pitchers in baseball history. He never missed a turn until his final season, 1988.
Sutton threw a staggering 5,282 1/3 innings, seventh most all-time. Only Cy Young and Nolan Ryan started more games.
He pitched more than 200 innings in a season 20 times. He’s one of only 10 pitchers to reach 300 wins (324, 14th best) and 3,000 strikeouts (3,574, 7th).
He wasn’t flashy. Sutton himself often said, “Comparing me to Sandy Koufax is like comparing Earl Sheib to Michelangelo.”
All he did was go out and do his job every time his turn in the rotation came up.
“I think it’s fair to say of baseball history never missing a start is extraordinary,” baseball historian Eric Enders told Jon Weisman of dodgerthoughts.com. “Even compared to his peer group, which was the most durable group of starters in baseball history, even among those guys, Sutton was the most durable, so that’s really impressive.”
When Sutton became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1994, noted analyst Bill James wrote, “Don Sutton should unquestionably be elected to the Hall of Fame. Yes, I know Sutton didn’t ‘seem like’ a Hall of Fame pitcher to many of you. The facts are, however, that there is no pitcher with a record remotely comparable to Sutton’s who is not in the Hall of Fame. There are many pitchers with much worse records than Sutton who are in.”
OK, so he only won 20 games once, had a career ERA of 3.26, and never played for a World Series winner.
Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post called Sutton’s five-year wait for election “one of baseball’s most ludicrous injustices.”
Murray Chass, the thoughtful baseball writer for The New York Times, once asked 16 general managers which pitcher they would rather have for their entire career, Koufax or Sutton.
“As intriguing as they all found the exercise,” Chass wrote, “the outcome was just as intriguing, because the general managers were clearly divided. Eight selected Koufax, six chose Sutton, and two said they could not decide.
“Those who chose Sutton generally said pitching is so fragile that it would be difficult to turn down the chance to get a pitcher who could last 23 years and win consistently, if not spectacularly.”
Sutton might even have been better during his second career, as anyone fortunate enough to listen to him during his lengthy tenure as a Braves announcer can attest. He knew his craft as well as anyone, and whenever he’d mention his old Dodger pitching coach, Red Adams, you knew he was about to impart one of the finer points of the art of pitching.
But for all his years behind the mic, Sutton might have been at his eloquent best during his Hall of Fame induction speech.
“You can have a dream, and if you’re willing to work for it, it can come true, and you can earn a dream coming true. I have everything in life I’ve ever wanted.”