Monday, July 09, 2007

Chatting With A Hall of Famer

"That makes everything I do, worthwhile," he stated. "Thank you so very much." The African Queen had just thanked Hall of Fame Pitcher Don Sutton for her continuing education of baseball. He was very proud to be on the receiving end of that comment. Since joining The MASN Broadcast Team of Our Washington Nationals for The 2007 Season--he has been a revelation--for not only Sohna, but myself included. The insight that Sohna has gained from his broadcasts--worth its weight in Gold. For me, not a single away game has passed (since The African Queen & I attend virtually every Home Game) this season where, Don Sutton has not had me contemplating something I did not know. And no, I am not talking about Trivia, or the more mundane things about This Great Game. His insight is always something that makes me think. Don Sutton can relate his thoughts and beliefs about Baseball in the most down home, folksy way. Never does he yell or scream. Always calm and considerate in his speech. Watching him perform on TV is alot like sitting around the Dinner Table--listening to your friends talk baseball.

Don Sutton alone--has made MASN's Broadcasts Exceptional--to Sohna and I--all on his very own.

From the very moment we first met him, this past January 26th at Our Washington Nationals Winter Caravan Stop at The Fairfax Chapter of The American Red Cross--we were taken by him. Sohna and Don hit it off great. They talked for some time. For Sohna, it was special, as she really had no idea who he was. We found Mr. Sutton kind and engaging. Something we really had not expected from a Hall Of Fame Pitcher. A Great Player whose career lasted 23 seasons for five different Franchises, while racking up 324 Wins, 58 Shutouts and a career 3.26 ERA. A Gamer like none other--Don Sutton threw in over 750 career starts without missing a turn in the rotation--not once. He is The All Time Los Angeles Dodgers Leader in Wins, Games, Strikeouts and Shutouts. A Four Time All Star, who made appearances in four different World Series--and eight total starting assignments.

Don Sutton was Elected to The Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 with 81.6% of Baseball Writers Votes.

Upon retirement as a Professional Ball Player, Mr. Sutton embarked on a new career--that of Baseball Broadcaster beginning in 1989 with WTBS and The Atlanta Braves. That's where he honed his remarkable new path as one of baseball's top analysts and play-by-play men. A position he held, until this past fall, when he was "shockingly" let go after 18 years covering The Braves. Fortunately, his work in Atlanta, is where he came to meet Our Washington Nationals Team President, Stan Kasten. Almost immediately, Mr. Kasten signed Don Sutton to be a broadcast partner on the fledgling Nationals Flagship Network--MASN. This Hall Of Famer now signed to a 4 year contract.

For some time now--Sohna and I have wanted to get together with him, to not only share our thoughts with him over his work--but also to find out more about this very interesting man. So recently, I reached again to Our Washington Nationals to see if Mr. Sutton was amiable for a chat on The Nats320 Blog. Our Team got back to me, in just a few short days. Don Sutton had agreed and we would all meet this past July 2nd at 5PM in The Press Box at RFK Stadium before The Chicago Cubs--Washington Nationals Game took place.

But, I want to make something perfectly clear. The reason for the interview was not to ask: Who was your toughest batter faced? What was it like to (you fill in the final words)? No, Sohna and I wanted to find out about Don Sutton--The Man. He was born in a very small town--Clio, Alabama. And, had to work is way up through everything in life. That's what this chat is all about. In Today's Part One--Don will discuss his childhood life, what he learned as a youth--and how all that shaped his life, and transformed him, into The Hall Of Fame Pitcher he became, and a Quality Broadcaster, too.

Then, tomorrow--in Part Two--Its all about BASEBALL. His thoughts on the game today, how its changed. What's good and and bad about this great game. And, we finish with "The Lightning Round". I throw out names of some of THE GREATEST PLAYERS of his Generation. Don Sutton gives his, off the top of his head, thoughts on each one. Its quite fun, and fascinating. But, that's getting too far ahead. So, here we go.

Still speaking with Sohna over his manner of broadcasting a baseball game:

“I wish tomorrow morning they would say ‘Gosh, I wish I had been there!!’ Then, we’ve done it right. But, if you remember that ‘Don said’—Then, we are doing it wrong. Its not about me, its about those players out on the field. We are the vehicles.”

(Talking to Don--SBF) When Sohna first started watching baseball games with me, she assumed that each and every game was basically the same. And, I had to explain to her that virtually every game has its unique characteristics. Something may well happen you have never seen before. And, thanks to your explanations—she has come to realize, expect, and see the game in a far different way (SBF). The African Queen chimed in with: “I didn’t grow up with Baseball, but Football (Soccer to you and I). I didn’t even understand for a while what a Grand Slam was.”

“Bless you my child.," Don answered. "Yes, you probably thought a Grand Slam was a hamburger. (We are all cracking up) Breakfast at McDonalds.”

(AQ) But now I understand all that, and even more, thanks to your explanations. And, thanks to MickNats, “The Noise Boys" and many of the other fine folks that sit in our wonderful Section 320—they have all been involved in teaching me things. Now, I feel more a part of the game.

“Well, that sounds greats," Don said, listening intently. "You sound like you are more popular than the players. (We all chuckle). That’s a wonderful story. And, it doesn’t surprise me. I remember when we first met (during the Winter Caravan Blood Drive Stop in Fairfax, Virginia) you had such a charming and disarming personality. What a nice asset (Sohna thanking him)."

(SBF) Just like me, she comes to virtually every single game.

“You know (looking right at me), you married well over your head!!" Mr. Sutton commented. (EVERYONE BUSTING OUT LAUGHING) "You not only married over your head, but you married younger!! (JUST A GREAT LAUGH GOING AROUND NOW—Of course, Don had NO IDEA that The African Queen is OLDER than I).

Don went on to show us a picture of his 10 Year Old Daughter. “She’s a real Jock. She wants to come play catch with the guys every day. She told me the other day, ‘Dad, you should let me go in (The Clubhouse). I can help Matt Chico with his pitches. (Laughing again) But, she LOVES the game. She’s a left-handed pitcher, left-handed hitter and plays baseball video games all day long. For two years, she was the only girl on a boy’s baseball team. She also likes basketball. She’s my girl. She’s a dandy. They will be at every single game (at RFK Stadium). She and her Mom will be there—EVERY NIGHT!!"

With every one now warmed up—the actual interview began.

You’ve mentioned that your Father was A Huge Influence in your life, although he was not a baseball player? (SBF)

“Dad lost one eye when he was 17 Years old. He grew up in rural Alabama with barely any schooling because, at that time, kids were your greatest asset in big families. And, the reason they were your greatest asset is because they could work the farms. It wasn’t so you could send them off to college. So, my Dad played sports until he was about 17. Country Hard Ball as he then called it. Until he was about 17, then he lost his eye. But, he always used to tell me that he taught me my curveball because they would hunt with slingshots and guns. So, whatever they did—they would hunt. Because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t eat. You wouldn’t have any meat. So, he said every time a rabbit ducked behind a log, he would throw a curve ball to get him. My Dad, kiddingly, told someone that story at The Hall Of Fame (chuckling).”

“I like to think I got my work ethic from my Dad because he was a Farmer. He was a Logger. He was a Construction Worker. And, I never saw my Dad miss a day of work. Not one. So, I felt like if I am in these conditions (playing Major League Baseball), I won’t miss a day of work either. I think I went 750 Consecutive Starts without missing a turn. It was my job.”

I mentioned to Don how my real job is also in Television News—and I go to work every single day, without fail. He responded: “Then if you are in TV, your philosophy is a lot like mine. If we weren’t doing this, we would both have to get a job.”

Smiling, I said: You got that right. It’s so very true. (SBF)

“But, my Dad was a very positive influence. And, to this day, still is.”

So, as a youngster, how did you fall in love with the game of baseball? (SBF)

“It was an easy game for us to play in the country, because we would take a bobber from a fishing cord, wrap it with twine and cover it with friction tape. Anything that was round and just so long (motioning length with his hands) you could make into a bat. So, we didn’t really need gloves. You could play with two people, you could play with five, you could play with nine, and you could play with 18. In the country there is plenty of space, so we have all types of pastures to play in. So, as early as 5 or 6 six years old, I can remember all of us playing ball just about everywhere. I honestly can’t remember when I didn’t play ball.”

“We moved to Florida, from Alabama, when I was six years old. Then, I remember whomever was in the house before us had left a baseball glove on the roof of one of the out buildings and I found it. So, I had a glove. My first glove, one of the old three fingers models—two big fingers and a thumb. I kept it for the longest time. But, I really can’t remember when I didn’t play the game. That’s all we did (play baseball).”

I would imagine you didn’t aspire to become a professional player, it just happened? (SBF)

[With a wry smile on his face] “From the time I was 12 years old, I told everybody I knew that I was going to pitch in the Big Leagues. From the time I was 15 on, I told everyone that would listen to me, that I was going to The Hall Of Fame.”

Really? (SBF)

“I can remember in Junior High School standing in the outfield with My Best Friend, the catcher while batting practice was taking place. We were standing around and I said to Larry Tyree (his friend): ‘You know Larry, one day I am going to The Hall of Fame.’ He looked over at me and (non chalantly) said: ‘Knowing you, you probably will.’ But, it was that type of reinforcement that I got growing up.”

“When you think about it, my Mom and Dad were 17 & 14 Years Old when they got married. They had me a year later. We were tenant farmers. It was really stupid of me to think I could go from that situation to play in The Big Leagues. But, nobody ever told me I couldn’t. I never, not once, heard anyone say to me: ‘Naw, that ain’t ever going to happen.’ So, I kept trying.”

And that confidence all comes from your Dad? (SBF)

“I think so. They had to have it (confidence). Where they started, lets face it, they didn’t have a whole lot going for themselves when you are a share cropper and you are 17, married to someone whose 14, and all of a sudden you are 18 & 15 and you have a baby—You Better Be Confident. That’s about the only asset you got and you can’t take that to the bank. I can never remember a 'Wo is us' day in our life. It was always a positive life. We had everything we needed. And, everyone around us was the same, so it wasn’t like we were the only one bedroom house on a street of mansions. We all grew up comparing the little we had.”

I mention to Don that my parents (whom both reached their teens during The Great Depression) had their first child, My Oldest Brother, at the age of 17 & 15--Similar to Mr. Sutton’s situation. Yet, as poor as we were—we never realized it.

“Yes, that’s true. That’s just the way it was. There was a kid that was my best friend from grades one through nine. I use to envy him because his parents house was made of brick. ‘Wow, you guys have a brick house. This is cool!!’ (All three of us laughing) ‘Can I come over some more?’ But, we were all the same--25 miles from the nearest town. We all did the same things, went to the same places. We fished, we hunted, we played baseball, went to Sunday School on Sunday and went to regular school on Monday. The life was the same for everybody. It was quite comfortable.”

“I still go back there for therapy. I go back to my Dad’s and I get his boat, go down the river and stay all day. My Dad is in the very same house he has been in since the very first days I played professional ball. I went to play ball. They built that house. They kept an old house until I left home (laughing). So, my sister and brother got to grow up in a new house. So, my Dad has been in that very same house, for Gosh, 45 years. Same People. Same Neighbors. Same Place. It’s a very comfortable environment.”

The more Don talked with Sohna and I, we, more a more, realized how similar our backgrounds growing up were. My Parents, now both passed away—also lived in the very same house for nearly 40 years, until their passing. Its what they knew. It’s what they were comfortable with.

“Yes, I love going back there. I see the same people. I might not go back there for three years, go to the grocery store and gas station were they always meet in the back and have coffee. One guy makes biscuits. So, you can go in there, sit down, have a biscuit with a cup of coffee. And, you start up with the very same conversation continued from three years ago, with the same people. Its just great.”

“They use a term: ‘I ain’t living above my raising. (We all chuckle). Boy remembers where he comes from.’ Its therapy. You know what it is—it’s the simplicity. In my lifetime, I could never make enough money to buy the simplicity that I grew up in, because we had none. I can’t give my kids the simple way of life. I had the uncomplicated way of life—regardless of how much money I had. And, we had just that—because we had nothing. But, it was simple. We left our doors open. If your house was down the street and you wanted to borrow a cup of sugar--I would just come in and leave you a note. Borrow a cup of sugar, bring it back in a couple of days.”

“When I was 12 years old, I had a charge account at a grocery store, because I had a part time job. I would go into the store, pick up things—write it down. Saturday, when I got my money from work, I would go pay them. That was then; today it’s an unrealistic expectation. But, I think it taught me the Value of Work. It taught me Responsibility. It taught me the Value of People You Could Count on. And, having People Believe in You.”

“Don’t let me get too deep into that. But, I loved were I grew up. I would not trade The Nothing we had, for ANYTHING!!”

So, turning to your Professional Career. You started on a Dodgers Team with some fine pitchers in Sandy Koufax, & Don Drysdale—what did you learn from them?

“I WON THE LOTTERY when I went to that ball club. I was 20 years old and my mentors were Koufax, Drysdale and (Claude) Osteen. And, they were WONDERFUL. They were unselfish. They did not have big heads. They were Superstars who were quick to see that I didn’t embarrass myself. Because, when I left to play Pro Ball, I had only been in three states. I had only been in Alabama, Georgia and Florida –AND THAT WAS IT!! And, I had only just been across the line into Georgia.”

“I signed to play Pro Ball and they (The Dodgers) sent me to Santa Barbara, California. ‘Is that in the U.S’ (he pondered). But, then I got called up to the Big Leagues in less than a year after a Minor League Season. They (Koufax, Drysdale, Osteen) were like Big Brothers. They just made sure that I knew how to do it the right way. They (to me) were Dimitri Young (Washington's 2007 All Star). They were the veteran guys that taught me the right way to do things. Show up on time. Do your Job. Watch us. Learn from us. Develop your skill, your way of doing it. But, let us teach you the foundation.”

“The only thing they asked was to pass it on. That is the only request they ever made to me.”

You still see those same values passed on today by players? (SBF)

“In some of them, yes.” (But, not all of them?—SBF) “No, not all of them. It’s not as important. The History is not as important to as big a segment of this generation as it was to our generation.”

In 1966, when you played for The Dodgers—A World Series Team. Why did you not play? (SBF)

“It was a four game series and they were going to run Koufax out there twice. That left Drysdale and Osteen for the other two. We got blitzed by Baltimore. So, if there had been a game five, I would have got the start.”

But, being so young—going to the World Series—was the feeling of being involved, the Greatest in The World?

“Heck ya, it was."

“But, Let me tell you something. I went to college in the off-season. We got beat Saturday in Baltimore to wrap up that Series (1966). We (The Dodgers) flew back to California after the game. I packed my stuff and then flew to Jackson, Mississippi on Sunday, and started class Monday Morning at Mississippi College--after being in a World Series. I had started school three weeks late, but I knew all my professors and they had given me my assignments. So, I walked into class-- (Mr. Sutton pretends to look up surprised, at other students noticing him--Sohna and I laughing). ‘Mr. Sutton,' the professor says, 'Its nice to have you with us’ ‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘Its nice to be with you.’

‘Weren’t you in Baltimore?’—A classmate says.

“Anyway, I wouldn’t like to think how different it would have been if I had not had those three mentors (Koufax, Drysdale & Osteen) and Walter Alston (Long Time Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers Manager) as Manager.”

Most people don’t know much about Walter Alston. He was a quiet man? (SBF)

“That’s the way he wanted it. Strong, Silent, Honest, Most Secure Man I have ever known in sports. He didn’t want you to know how good he was, because he wanted you to know how good his 25 players were. He shunned the Hollywood Scene. As soon as the season was over, the very next day, he was on a plane for Dartown, Ohio. A little place back there where he could go back, whittle, quail hunt and shoot pool—hang out with his pals. Then, next spring start the baseball season all over again. He had 25 consecutive one-year contracts. He would tell them (The Dodgers): ‘The Day you don’t want me. I don’t want to be here.’ There was this Aura of Confidence around him. He would close the door, and have a meeting with you. Whatever he had to say, nobody else would know. He was almost like an extension of my Dad.”

Its interesting how from the earliest moments of your life, through your growing years, and professional ball, so many involved in your upbringing were strong people. (SBF)

“It was wonderful. It could not have happened any better. My First Minor League Manager was Norm Sherry—a catcher who taught Koufax. When Koufax was throwing the ball all over the park, Norm taught him. My second manager was Roy Hartsfield. He later managed Toronto (Blue Jays)--A very confident man who couldn’t manage in today’s Minor Leagues. I played 8 weeks in Class A Ball, then got sent to AA. I walked into AA at Albuquerque, New Mexico. They were in a Pennant Race. I am in my very first game there and get into trouble (on the mound) in the sixth inning. My Manager Roy Hartsfield comes out like this (Arms Crossed His Chest): ‘Son, You got yourself into this. Go get yourself out of this.’ He then turned and walked away. Don’t be looking into the Dugout (for help). That’s where you learn how to pitch.”

To be continued tomorrow. I hope you are enjoying The Chat.


Anonymous said...

When you grow up having little, you always come to appreciate life more. That's a nice story about Don Sutton. Looking forward to the second part.

Anonymous said...

SBF this is great, and Don Sutton sounds as nice and informative in person as he does on the airwaves.

Hard to believe a Hall of Fame pitcher with 324 wins is only the 2nd most famous person to come from Clio, Alabama but that's the way it goes when you are from the same hometown as George C. Wallace, I suppose.

All best and see you soon. Buzz

Anonymous said...

SBF You da man!