Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Friday, January 4, 2013

Don Sutton’s Last Days as a Dodger

Don Sutton in 1988 Spring Training (photo by Houston Mitchell/L.A. Times)

On August 9th, 1988 Don Sutton toed the rubber at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium and struggled to defeat the Reds.  He had been having difficulty getting decisions and had been a victim of poor run support in this return season with the Dodgers having strted 6 consecutive games that the Dodgers had lost.

As great as 1988 was for the Dodger organization, it was a season of frustration for the 43-year old future Hall of Famer who went on the disabled list for the first time in his career on July 3rd with elbow soreness.

When the season began, I thought it was kind of special that Don Sutton returned to pitch for the Dodgers.  After leaving the club in 1980, it was appropriate for him to finish his Hall of Fame career in Dodger blue, and on a Championship club, no less.  
1988 Mother's Cookies Card, Sutton's last year in MLB.

So here he was in Cincinnati, facing kids a little over half his age such as 24-year old Barry Larkin, 25-year old Paul O’Neil, and 26 year old phenoms Eric Davis and Chris Sabo.  Former Sutton nemesis Pete Rose was managing the Reds and Don was making his first start in 42 days.

Again he was a victim of poor run support as Danny Jackson stifled the Dodger bats, keeping them scoreless throughout the night.  As the Reds pecked away to a 5-0 lead in the 7th inning, Don faced Eric Davis with two outs and a runner on second.  He reached back for something extra in that 43-year old arm of his and struck Davis out swinging to end the inning.  Davis would be the last batter that Sutton would face in his hall of fame career.  His 3,574th strikeout victim.  Don was lifted for a pinch hitter in the 8th.

Little D, the young fireballer from Pensacola, Florida was on the fast track to the big leagues straight out of high school in 1964.  He spent one year in the minors, pitching the 1965 season in A and AA ball, throwing 229 innings.  By the next year, he found himself in the Dodgers rotation out of Spring Training alongside Osteen, Drysdale and Koufax.  It was a rookie year in which he threw 225 big league innings, finishing  12-12 with a 2.99 ERA.

Lasorda, Sutton and Koufax at Cooperstown, 1998 for Sutton's Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. (Photo by Dodger photographer Jon Soo Hoo - LINKED HERE)

What resulted was the career of the winningest Dodger pitcher in history and the player that would break virtually every Dodger career pitching mark.  From wins to losses, strikeouts to walks, games started to complete games.  Sutton was the Dodger ace in the 1970s.

He loved pitching for Walter Alston and he highly respected the soft-spoken veteran manager.  When Tommy Lasorda came along, the out-going talkative style of the new guy wasn’t to his liking.  Lasorda and Sutton got along publicly, but behind closed doors there were issues.  Don liked guys that would do their talking with their actions.  The “rah-rah” style of Lasorda he saw as manufactured and a bit phony.  Sure, Sutton went along with it because the Dodgers were winning, but there was trouble in paradise.

Sutton wasn’t a happy Dodger.  He had few close friends on the ball club and he publicly longed to pitch in Houston in the spacious Astrodome.  He didn’t like that Steve Garvey nabbed most of the team headlines and that Garvey’s public image seemed more important to the young first baseman than the team.

In August, 1978, Don told the press that the MVP and leader of the Dodger team was Reggie Smith.  Garvey took offense to his statement and confronted him about his public quotes.  Words were exchanged and Sutton insulted the Garv’s wife in the process.  What ensued was a wrestling match between the two of them on the Shea Stadium clubhouse floor.  When someone yelled that they needed to break up the fight because they’d kill each other, catcher Joe Ferguson answered, “good.”  When asked about the scuffle, Steve Yeager downplayed it saying “Hey, this team is always hugging after home runs. Those guys were just hugging on the floor."

Happier Times, Sutton and Garvey celebrate the 1974 Game 1 NLCS victory at Pittsburgh (UPI Photo)

After departing the Dodgers in 1981, Sutton spent time in Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland and Anaheim before returning to L.A. when Fred Claire convinced him to return for a final swan song.  Ironically, it was Claire that broke the bad news to Sutton that he had been released after the Aug. 10th Cincinnati game.  At the time, Claire was just days away from finalizing a deal with St. Louis that would send Pedro Guerrero to the Cardinals for John Tudor, and Tudor would fill Sutton’s spot in the rotation for the remainder of the season.

There had been some bad blood between Sutton and Claire the very day of the Reds loss as Sam McManis of the L.A. TImes reported that Sutton had reached out to Houston Astro General Manager Bill Wood and discussed being an assistant G.M. with that club, perhaps in the following season.  Claire said that Sutton didn’t have permission to speak with other clubs as he was still under contract as a Dodger pitcher.  Less than 12 hours later, he was released.

“I think I can still pitch,” said Sutton when learning of his release.  He said he wasn’t angry or bitter.  “It’s a business.  It’s a wonderful business.  I had no problem with the explanation by Fred (Claire).  He said the pitching staff is going in another direction.”  Claire explained to the media that the Dodgers were concerned with Sutton’s inability to take the team into the late innings and that his starts were taxing the bullpen.

Things had been tense with the Sutton situation during his month on the D.L.  Don thought he was healthy enough to be pitching.  The Dodgers wanted him to make rehab starts for Single A Bakersfield before he returned to the rotation.  He went down and made the starts to mixed results.  The Dodgers seemed in no hurry to rush him back to the rotation as they had a 7 game lead in the division in early August.   Pitching coach Ron Perranoski recommended that the club hold Sutton back until he was 100%, saying it wasn’t “an emergency situation” to rush him back.  Sutton felt otherwise saying “I’d prefer that they make everything cut and dry, because I have.”  

They brought him back up, he pitched against the Reds and then they released him.

The Dodgers called up Ramon Martinez to replace Sutton, but he was soon back out of the rotation after the Tudor trade a few days later.
Sadly, 3 days after Don's release, his parents were in a car accident in which Don's mother perished.  It was undoubtedly a very difficult month for Don and his family.

I found it interesting to read years later that Fred Claire had regrets as to how the Sutton release went down.  In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue he expressed regret that he didn’t agree to allow Sutton to retire with a formal press conference.  Had that happened, the Dodgers wouldn’t have been on the hook for the pro-rated portion of the contract that was left in the season.  So instead, Sutton opted to simply be released without any fanfare.  Claire says today thet he believes that Don is still hurt by the way his release happened.

President Ronald Reagan with the Dodgers following the '88 Series win.  Sutton was part of the ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

Claire took the step to ensure that Sutton was part of the World Series celebration and trip to the White House to meet President Reagan after the season concluded.

The next year, Sutton began what turned out to be several years of work with the Atlanta Braves broadcasts.  He worked there long enough that many began to associate Sutton more as a Brave than a Dodger, though he never did play for Atlanta.  A friendship with Stan Kasten ensued.  So much so that he followed Kasten to Washington years later after Kasten moved north to get the Washington Nationals operating smoothly.

How's this for an idea?  Sutton returns to the Dodger fold as a broadcaster.  I think it'd be a good fit.  Another Hall of Fame Dodger in the broadcast booth.  First it was Big D.  Now it's time for Little D to return to the fold.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. Remember everything but the fact his mom died a few days later.