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And there was the not inconsiderable matter of the athlete's psyche. On a sunny afternoon in early June, the Suttons discussed their near breakup over lunch in the kitchenette of their fine home in the hills above Laguna Beach. "Most of us are used to receiving, receiving all the time," Sutton said of professional athletes. "Everything is done for us. We're not used to giving at all. There's a constant sponge effect. Our priorities get way out of whack. We tend to forget that other people also need some emotional strokes. Everyone needs to feel the space they occupy is important."
Patti Sutton, a small, lively woman, smart and talented, is two years younger than her husband. She decorated the interior of their home so that it resembles an 18th century French country house. But saving their marriage was her most important project. "I was convinced it was all over," she said. Don moved out of the Calabasas home for a month. They sought counseling, but that didn't seem to work. Then the minister of their nondenominational church, the Rev. Tim Timmons, convinced them that their problems were hardly insurmountable. "We finally concluded," Sutton said, "that marriages don't just happen, they have to be worked on. We decided to work." He put down his morning paper and started to open up. She practiced patience. "Now," she says, "the marriage is the best it's ever been. We've given ourselves and the children a far greater sense of security."
The decision to purchase the new home in Laguna Hills was part of the recovery. While she decorated the interior, he designed the yard, drawing with a stick in the dirt where he wanted the garden, the pool. They moved in last September. Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 2, Sutton's right kneecap was shattered by a Jerry Reuss pitch. "Some people will do anything to get out of moving," he quipped. But now they've got their dream home. "We had two nice houses in two nice neighborhoods," says Sutton, "but this is home. For the first time since I left Pensacola, I have someplace I can really look forward to coming home to."
As admirable as this sentiment surely is, it has brought on yet another crisis. Sutton visited Dallas when he was 12, and almost wistfully he has yearned to live there ever since. It was a sort of fantasy for him. The Astros obviously gave him a chance to realize his unusual aspiration, and, after he signed, the Suttons did look at homes in the Dallas area. But a fantasy realized can leave a strange vacancy in the soul. The Suttons didn't find what they wanted in Dallas. They took the Laguna Hills house instead, committing themselves to Southern California.
Unfortunately, Sutton had already talked too much about his affection for the Lone Star state. The style there, he had said, was better suited to an old country boy, even one who after 15 years of life in Los Angeles had developed a taste for the symphony, good books and fine wine. That said, he established a permanent home in Southern California. It wasn't that he was disillusioned with Texas; it was just that the Suttons had found their dream house. And now, for the first time, Sutton was placing top priority on his wife and children. Last November, he dropped in to see Astro President Al Rosen, and what he had to say left Rosen flabbergasted. Eleven months after he had signed his long-term contract with Houston, Sutton wanted to be traded to the California Angels.
"I was shocked, to say the least," says Rosen. "When he first came to Houston, Don seemed exceedingly happy. We thought we could win it all this year. And Don was to be an important cog. I just couldn't understand it. Oh, I fully understand Don's motivation. With the career he's had, he should be able to live where he wants to. The trouble is that a career in the game precludes that. He made his choice, after all. I just couldn't give that request credence. We're not about to trade a Don Sutton—a guy who can win 300 games and make the Hall of Fame. We're a corporation and we have stockholders to answer to. And with the amount of money we paid Don...well, I thought I made my point cogently."
Rosen hadn't counted on Sutton's stubborn streak. Sutton let his first request sink in, reasoning that Rosen would obviously need time to make the necessary arrangements. Then, after two months had passed, he again appeared in the front office to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. In the meantime, he had said on radio in Southern California that he would certainly like to be playing for somebody closer to home—like the Angels. This brought a reprimand from the Commissioner's office. The Houston papers had gotten hold of the story, and when Rosen at first denied that there was any problem, the papers got on him. Rosen was embarrassed. Also adamant. "Yes, I was angry," he says now. "Don and I got to jabbing at each other in the press. I didn't think this was something for public consumption, but after Don went on the radio..."
The Houston fans were also outraged. Sutton seemed to be a spoiled millionaire who was taking his money and running. Sutton said he was willing to return his $500,000 signing bonus if the Astros would kindly return him to Orange County. At the same time, he said he loved pitching in the Astrodome, with its dead air and long fences—"a forgiving ball park"—and that his new teammates were the nicest guys he'd ever played with or against. "Now, if we could just take the Astrodome and the Astros and move them to San Juan Capistrano, I'd be happy," he said. "I say San Juan Capistrano because it's close to my house but far enough away so I wouldn't get all the traffic. And I could just drop the kids off at school on my way to the park."
Having recovered from his knee injury, Sutton lost his first start of the season to the Braves in Atlanta. He was booed—"mercilessly," says The Houston Post's Kenny Hand—in his first start in the Dome. But he won. In fact, he won seven games in a row, and the booing stopped. Rosen was relieved. "I never want to see a player looked on with disfavor, and I said all along that Don would start his 35 games, win 18 and come in with an ERA of two and a half." At week's end, Sutton was 8-4, with an ERA of 3.16. "I'd like to win 300 games, get 3,000 strikeouts and be voted into the Hall of Fame," he says. "Those goals keep me going. They mean a lot to me. But after this season my family and I are going to see if my personal and professional goals are compatible. If we decide that our best interests would be served by my not playing any longer, then that's it. After all these years, I'm getting a little tired of raising my kids over the telephone."
In the meantime, he rolls on, accumulating numbers. After he passed Young on the strikeout list, he sat down for breakfast the next morning at Houston's Shamrock Hilton. He opened his newspaper at the table. "Let's see what the Astros did last night," he said. They had lost 5-4, in 10 innings, Sutton leaving with a 3-2 lead after the seventh when his injured knee tightened up on him. "Oops, this is the sort of thing that used to drive Patti nuts. Reading the paper. Actually, she always had my undivided attention. It just didn't look that way with the paper stuck in my face." He examined his strikeout total—seven—and set the paper aside. "It's not the numbers that count, it's the people involved. It's the names of the people who have occupied the spots I'm now reaching—Koufax, Drysdale, Cy Young. Cy Young." He shook his curly head. "They named a pretty important award after that man."