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."