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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."