The Baseball Codes

RIP Don Sutton

Don Sutton, who passed away yesterday at age 75, has a unique place in each of my three books. In Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, he faced the A’s as a member of the Dodgers. In They Bled Blue, he faced the Dodgers as a member of the Astros. And in The Baseball Codes, he appeared as a ball scuffer par excellence.

Sutton spent 16 of his 23 big league seasons with the Dodgers—his first 15 and his last one—and his time in LA came not only to define him as a pitcher, but to materially influence the players he left upon his departure, who would win the World Series the following season.

LA is where Sutton enjoyed the six-year stretch from 1972 to 1977 that opened the doors to the Hall of Fame to him. During those seasons, the right-hander made his only four All-Star teams and posted five top-5 Cy Young finishes (one third, one fourth and three fifths).

“If I had to pitch one guy in a game seven, it would be Don Sutton,” Tommy Lasorda wrote in his autobiography, I Live for This. “I loved him. But sometimes I was one of the only ones.”

Sure enough, Sutton was not known for cozy relationships with his teammates, a detail noteworthy in his 1978 clubhouse fistfight with Steve Garvey. He frequently extend a similar mindframe to his manager. Sutton was the rare star on those late-1970s Dodgers to not have played for Lasorda in the minor leagues, a detail that helps explain why the two were frequently at odds. After 11 years playing for the staid Walter Alston in Los Angeles, Sutton bristled when Lasorda was installed.

“With Walt, there wasn’t a whole lot of rah-rah,” the pitcher explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I wasn’t mentally equipped to make the adjustment.” (Sutton once told a reporter who was furiously scribbling to keep up with one of Lasorda’s Great Dodger in the Sky monologues: “You know what you can do with those notes you’re making? Shred ’em and put ’em around your shrubbery at home and watch it grow.”)

From They Bled Blue:

When the Astros snatched Sutton up [in December 1980] with a four-year, $3.1 million offer, it was impossible for Lasorda not to take it personally. The right-hander had been an Alston man, publicly lobbying for coach Jeff Torborg to replace the storied manager in 1976, even when Lasorda was all but a lock for the position. “I just don’t believe that I could play for a manager who’s a headline grabber, who isn’t honest,” Sutton said at the time, later refusing to become “one of [Lasorda’s] bobos.” Things grew so heated that Lasorda challenged Sutton to settle their differences with fists. The pitcher declined. Their differences remained.

Sure enough, Sutton never garnered a single Cy Young vote in four years under Lasorda during his prime, though the two reached enough of a détente for Sutton to return to LA for his final season, in 1988.

More than that—during that—was a fascinating aspect of Sutton’s success: an ability to scuff baseballs that lent his pitches the type of movement that few of his peers possessed. He was said to adhere a piece of sandpaper on a finger of his glove hand, which he would use to mar the ball to wondrous effect.

No less than Nolan Ryan confirmed as much after hitting a home run off of Sutton during the first week of the 1980 season. It was the first of Ryan’s career, and he managed to get the ball returned to him … at which point, he said later, “that thing was all scuffed up.”

When Sutton joined the Astros, a chorus of opinions held that Lasorda, who knew all of his secrets, would have him all but undressed on the mound. Sutton’s pitch-perfect response was to question the source. What else would Lasorda say he wondered in the Los Angeles Times: “Those other years I lied?” (Lasorda never did have him checked.)

From They Bled Blue:

During the 1981 season, Sutton agreed to secretly film an instructional video for NBC-TV about how to cheat in baseball, wearing a ski mask to protect his identity, with the film reversed to make him look like a southpaw. (He ended up scrapping the project when a newspaper reporter and photographer showed up at the shoot.) “I keep telling you guys, I don’t use sandpaper,” he informed reporters before the season opener in Los Angeles. “Sandpaper gets wet and crumbles. [I use a] sanding wheel. I already checked to see if there was an outlet there on the mound, but they removed it.” Once, when an umpire searched Sutton for abrasive surfaces, he instead found a note reading, “It’s not here, but you’re getting warm.”

I recounted my favorite story about Sutton’s scuffing in The Baseball Codes. It involves a game from 1987, in which Sutton, by that point pitching for the Angels, was carving up the Yankees:

George Steinbrenner was watching the game on television, and was shocked when the camera zoomed in to show close-ups of what appeared to be a small patch, or even a bandage, on the palm of Sutton’s left hand. The WPIX broadcasters brought it up whenever the pitcher appeared to grind the ball into his palm between pitches. It was, they said, probably why Sutton’s pitches possessed such extraordinary movement that day. He was in all likelihood scuffing the baseball.

Outraged, Steinbrenner called the visitors’ dugout at Anaheim Sta­dium and lit into Yankees manager Lou Piniella. Was he aware, asked the owner, that Sutton was cheating? “Our television announcers are aware of it,” yelled Steinbrenner. “I’m sure the Angels are aware of it. You’re prob­ably the only guy there who doesn’t know it. Now, I want you to go out there and make the umpires check Don Sutton!”

“George,” Piniella responded, “do you know who taught him how to cheat?”

Steinbrenner confessed that, in fact, he did not.

“The guy who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitch­ing for us tonight,” Piniella said. “Do you want me to go out there and get Tommy John thrown out, too?”

Don Sutton pitched 23 seasons and won 324 games while striking out 3,574 batters, seventh all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. He passed away less than two weeks after his former manager, Lasorda, in much less expected fashion, another Hall of Famer felled in a string that has seen too many pass too soon.

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