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Little D’s Big Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why succumb to regret when there are so many people to remember and thank? Why allow the delay to detract from the realization of a dream?

Won’t happen, Don Sutton says in the week of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Nothing will diminish the day, even though his credentials suggest this should have transpired sooner.

Instead, eligible members of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America did not elect him until his fifth year on the ballot, but when asked if that will remove the luster from today’s ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., he said:

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“Not unless they write it on the plaque . . . ‘We didn’t let him in the first year or the second year or the third year or the fourth year.’ If they write that on the plaque, it will take something away from it.”

There will be no mention of that. The plaque will mention his “consistency and model control” during a 23-year major league career in which he won 324 games, ranking in a tie for 12th on the all-time list; struck out 3,574 batters, ranking fifth; had 15 or more wins 12 times, and never missed a start while pitching for the Dodgers, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics and Angels.

The plaque will show him in a Dodger cap. He registered his 300th win with the Angels, but made his mark as a Dodger, and there was never a question as to which uniform he wanted to be shown in, he said, even though the Dodgers’ decision to release him in 1988--when he had returned as a free agent--rather than giving him the option to retire first was a “cold, cruel dagger to the throat” that probably represents “the biggest heartache” of a career that began as the 20-year-old Little D of a Los Angeles rotation that included Don Drysdale, the Big D; Sandy Koufax, and Claude Osteen.

That was 1966, and now Sutton is joining Drysdale and Koufax in the Hall. “The nicest thing about it is that there isn’t any higher league,” Sutton said. “It’s a dream come true. Not many athletes would admit they were thinking about it almost from the time they began playing, but in my case that’s true. I was never the biggest, strongest or hardest thrower, but this is validation that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your goal.”

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Maybe Sutton will say that today. Surely he will recite a litany of names, the people who shared and helped shape his career, names that have been filtering through his thoughts at odd times and moments as he approached the induction ceremony--from Drysdale and Walter Alston to Red Adams and Monte Basgall to Andy Messersmith and Charlie Hough to Gene Autry and Gene Mauch to Tom Lasorda and Jim Brewer and the 20-month-old daughter who taught him that “you can’t put an age on the will to live” and prioritized his thinking when the writers inflicted the fourth of those Hall snubs.

On Monday of this milestone week, Sutton relaxed at Turner Field before going behind the mike as a member of the Atlanta Braves’ broadcasting team. It is his 10th year on the Atlanta broadcasts, and he said, “I like it better than being a player, but I don’t like it better than pitching because pitching was my absolute, competitive joy in life. I loved pitching, but broadcasting gives me the chance to be a starting pitcher every night. I get all of the privileges but none of the responsibilities. I don’t have a won-loss record.”

The man who won 324 games--more than 46 of the other 56 pitchers in the Hall--and had a career earned-run average of 3.26 and won 15 or more games 12 times, reached the 20-win milestone only once, although he won 19 twice. He was 21-10 with the Dodgers in 1976, and maybe some voters held that absence of 20-win seasons against him during his early years of eligibility.

Sutton said he was raised to believe that you strive for the consistency and durability that will be noted on his plaque.

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“I did the best I could, and it was better than most and better than a lot of the guys in the Hall with lesser credentials,” he said. “I think the first year [that he didn’t receive the required 75% of votes cast] was the only year it was kind of a kick in the gut. After that I didn’t really have any expectations one way or the other. If there was disappointment, I dealt with it and got on with my life. I tried to remember what my dad had taught me about worrying about things you can do something about and not worrying about the rest of it. I’d get a little tug each year [when the vote was announced], but that was it.”

He and wife Mary were scuba diving in Hawaii when the vote was announced in the second and third year of his eligibility, and that vote was the farthest thing from their minds in the fourth year when Mary, after a difficult pregnancy, gave birth to a daughter, Jacqueline, at 1 pound 6 ounces. Doctors said her chances for survival were 100-1, and those odds lengthened, Sutton said, before she got better.

“When you wake up at night wondering what you are going to put on your daughter’s headstone, baseball isn’t among your priorities,” he said.

Jacqueline spent 12 weeks in intensive care. She has had two eye operations and a double-hernia surgery, but she is the competitor her father was. At 20 months, she is out of the woods, 100%. She and Mary will attend today’s ceremony in Cooperstown, as will Daron and Staci, his children from a previous marriage.

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There also will be a Dodger contingent, including Lasorda and former owner Peter O’Malley, of whom Sutton said, “No one has been more sensitive or more involved since Jacqueline was born and the first Hall vote. He’s been like a member of the family. When he brought me back to Vero Beach and named one of the streets [at Dodgertown] after me, it was one of the most emotional moments of my life. It completed a circle, showed you can go home again.”

Sutton’s home was Clio, Ala. His father, Howard, 73, a sharecropper during his son’s early years and later a construction supervisor, will be in Cooperstown today. His mother, Lillian, was killed in a 1988 car accident, the same week he returned from a round of golf and was told to call Executive Vice President Fred Claire, who informed him he was being released.

He had made 16 appearances in his return to the Dodgers, going 3-6 and appearing on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

“I guess I would have liked Bob Hope singing ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ ” Sutton said. “It’s a business and I understand that. They held a press conference and I think I said the right things. It just would have been nice to have been given the option of retiring first. I have too much pride not to have made the right choice. That was not a good week.”

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The chill of his release is not likely to be evident today. His mother and so many others have been filtering through his memory.

Like Adams, his first Dodger pitching coach and “the most valuable person in my career.” Like Basgall, later a Dodger coach but then the scout who convinced him to sign with the Dodgers when 1) he wanted to sign with the New York Yankees (“they were always my favorite team but they broke my heart because they wouldn’t even offer a bus ticket”) and 2) almost signed with the Kansas City A’s until then-owner Charles Finley vetoed that signing because Sutton didn’t have a nickname.

He has been thinking about former Dodger teammates such as Brewer, his “reality mentor,” and Hough, who “taught me more about baseball in one hour than a lot of the managers I was around,” and Messersmith, who “did it all so easily that I had to work even harder to stay in his neighborhood.”

He has been thinking, of course, about Alston, and the risk he took putting a 20-year-old pitcher up from double-A in that vaunted rotation and who was so much like his father in his quiet, secure, honest approach.

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“I felt fortunate that the biggest challenge I had in my life came under the management of somebody who I felt had the same personality and identity as my dad,” Sutton said. “Both could take you in a room if they had something to discuss, slam the door, air you out, and nobody would ever know about it.

“Walt once told me I was the second most stubborn person he’d ever met. I said, ‘Who’s first?’ and he said, ‘I am, and it might do you well to remember that.’ He also gave me the greatest compliment I ever had as a player when he gave me his book and wrote on the inside cover that ‘When the game is on the line I want you to have the ball.’ I lived for that because I live for responsibility, not glamour or glory. I was never the prettiest pitcher, but I accepted the responsibility.”

He has been thinking too, about Big D and that first rotation and wondering what better place could a young pitcher have broken in than with those three talented pitchers and three different personalities who were “always very good with young players and started a tradition that I think I continued. I mean, it makes me feel good when I hear Greg Maddux say how much [former Chicago Cub teammate] Rick Sutcliffe meant to him because I think Sutcliffe would tell you that’s how much I meant to him [when they were Dodger teammates].”

He has been thinking as well of Lasorda and how some portrayed them as frequently at odds.

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“There is no question that Tommy’s personality is 180 degrees from mine and Walt’s,” Sutton said. “One regret I have is that Tommy and I never took a day, just the two of us, and sat down and explained our personalities to each other. But I knew then, and I know now, Tommy will do whatever it takes to give his club an opportunity to win, and I think he knows, and has said publicly, that he could always count on me.

“I never played for a more optimistic person, and I think a little of my personality broadened from being with him. I was always very serious because I regarded baseball as a serious business, but I saw from him that you don’t always have to be serious to be successful. He’s one of the most energetic and enthusiastic people I’ve ever been around, and I think his talents have been under-utilized. All of baseball needs him, not just the one club. If he had been higher up in baseball we wouldn’t have had the strike and a lot of the other negative stuff. There’s so much positive he could have done for the game.”

And he has been thinking of other places and people.

Like Milwaukee, which was his favorite environment because of its blue-collar ethic and where he beat the Angels when the Brewers trailed, 2-0, in the best-of-five American League playoff series of 1982, a victory that turned the series around, the Brewers eventually winning.

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Like Anaheim, thinking “how fortunate I was to have won my 300th game playing for a man who was my childhood hero [Gene Autry] and the thrill I got from being able to introduce my dad to him the next night.”

There were also all those interesting personalities there, he said, such as Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Doug DeCinces, Bob Boone and Brian Downing. There were two great defensive center fielders in Gary Pettis and Devon White, an outstanding pitching coach in Marcel Lachemann (“I probably don’t give Marcel as much credit as he deserves because of my deep affection for Red Adams, but if Red was a 10, Marcel is a 9.99") and a manager (Gene Mauch) from whom “I learned more baseball in two years than anyone else in my life. I look at games through Gene Mauch’s eyes now, and playing with Bob Boone was a double dose of Mauchism.”

Little D is 52 and says he is a better person because of the stops he made and people he met. In the best of worlds, he would have loved to spend 23 years with the Dodgers, but he will always be wearing their cap on that plaque he receives today. Neither time nor the new owners can change that.

“I’m proud of my niche in their history,” Sutton said. “As long as the future of the Dodgers contains a memory of the tradition and history and the blood, sweat and tears that a lot of us put into it, then I don’t care what changes they make. It’s none of my business. A lot of us paid a price to enhance that tradition and history and all I ask is that it is remembered.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

CLASS OF ’98

Today’s inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame:

* Don Sutton

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* Larry Doby

* Lee MacPhail

* ‘Bullet’ Joe Rogan

* ‘Gorgeous’ George Davis

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* JAIME JARRIN

The Dodgers’ Spanish-language broadcaster since 1959 is lucky to be alive to be inducted into broad-

casters’ wing at Cooperstown, N.Y. C5


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