In the course of Don Sutton's baseball career, 1986 amounted basically to a victory lap. All the last remaining milestones were passed--300 victories in June, 700 starts in September, 5,000 innings pitched in October. Sutton's ticket to Cooperstown was punched.
He has always been a man inspired by numbers, a man needing a mission. But in 1987, beginning his 22nd season, Sutton finds himself with nothing left to shoot for. Anticlimax has set in.
What, for Sutton, remains as motivation?
"I have no idea," he says. "It was strange not to have anything to think about over the winter."
Four-hundred victories? "No way," said Sutton, laughing at the thought. Sutton is 90 wins short. Next month, he turns 42.
"I wouldn't mind putting second place in games-started out of reach," he said. At 706, Sutton is 16 ahead of third-place Phil Niekro. "But that won't happen until Niekro retires, the old goat."
Sutton thought about his predicament. John Candelaria, who had been listening in, grinned and chimed in, "The cash register. That's motivation. That pay check you get every 15 days."
Finally, Sutton came up with something.
"I am greatly motivated by the fear of embarrassment," he said. "It's there. It's chiseled in.
"Right now, I'm playing until it becomes too difficult. I don't want to embarrass myself."
Sutton wondered if he had reached that point last May, when he was 2-5 with a 7.05 earned-run average. In his first four outings, Sutton allowed eight home runs.
But from that point on, Sutton went 13-6 and 2.83. He finished at 15-11--the same record he had in 1985, after finishing 14-12 in 1984.
The trend hasn't ended.
During the winter, the Angels picked up the option on Sutton's contract for one more season. After that, it's decision time.
"I vacillate on it all the time," Sutton said of the subject of retirement. "My personality is such that I would be very comfortable if I specifically knew this was it. I like things that are closed in and defined.
"But, on the other hand, I don't want to paint myself into a corner. If it's this year, I have no problem with that. But you only get one shot at this. I want to look back and say I did it as long as I possibly could."
Sutton hasn't changed the way he prepares for a season. As always, he was a late arrival to camp, skipping the first week of pitcher-and-catcher drills. Manager Gene Mauch lets Sutton set his own schedule. Sutton works out on his own during the offseason, shows up at Mesa around March 1, throws a couple of times in the bullpen and, in about a week, he's ready to go.
"My program's not that unusual," he said. "Everybody could do it if they wanted to."
With assistance from Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, Sutton begins gearing for his first exhibition start before Christmas.
"Lach told me in December exactly when I'd be pitching," Sutton said. "He looked at the schedule and said, "You'll be throwing the 7th, the 11th, the 15th. I worked toward that. It made me responsible for being ready."
The question for Sutton this year is, ready for what?
If Sutton finds himself lacking a purpose for 1987, Mauch has a suggestion in mind.
"Make me happy," Mauch said. "Just make me happy."
Sutton, on the walkout of Kirk McCaskill:
"You and I can't decide what's right for Kirk. Right now, he's a confused young man who feels he's trying to be browbeaten and intimidated. He has to do what his heart and his conscience tell him to do. If he felt what he's doing is right, then it was right.
"I miss him being here. He's one of my best friends and we're not going to win without him. I know he feels he worked his butt off to put numbers on the board and that it makes no sense trying to justify himself.
"He's too good a kid to be cast in a bad light. Every organization in baseball would kill to have a couple hundred like him."
If McCaskill fails to return to camp today, the Angels will begin fining him $1,000 a day.
And on the third day, the Angels broke down. In a 4-2 loss to the San Diego Padres Sunday, Angel fielders committed five errors--two in three innings by Wally Joyner--and Angel catchers yielded three stolen bases. "We made a very simple game look very difficult," Gene Mauch said. "That was not a typical Angel performance. But, it happens time and again in Florida and Arizona." Mauch turned to pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, who was penciling in the workout schedule for Monday. "Let's put more emphasis on catching the ball," Mauch told him. "And after we catch it, throwing it." . . . Ray Chadwick, starting in place of Kirk McCaskill, worked three innings, allowing two singles and one unearned run. "He pitched better than I've ever seen him pitch in a major-league uniform," Mauch said. "His stuff was crisp." . . . Mark Ryal and Stan Cliburn had RBI doubles . . . Mike Witt makes his first spring start today in Chandler against the Milwaukee Brewers.