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.