In the history of baseball announcing, I know of no one who has been better at teaching the layperson about pitching than Sutton. He hadn’t been a power guy like Drysdale or a phenomenon like Koufax, though he’d shared a rotation with both. He’d been a pitcher in the truest sense. That was why he tended to make teams mad when he beat them: He wasn’t throwing 98 mph with a 12-to-6 breaking ball. He just threw the ball where they couldn’t hit it hard. Oh, and he looked kind of arrogant.
I won’t tell you that the real Don Sutton was a self-effacing soul who would never say an unkind word about anyone. He knew who he was, and he knew he was pretty darn good at what he did. His pitching carried him to the Hall of Fame. His broadcast work was no less stellar. He told you what happened, but what set him apart was his capacity to tell you why it happened. Pitching is said to be 90% of the sport; he knew 99.9% of all there was to know about pitching.
For me, he became a great sounding board. I’d have one of my little ideas about why a Brave wasn’t any better or what made Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz so good, and I’d run it past Sutton before I wrote it. He’d hit me with five more things I hadn’t even considered. Pete Van Wieren was known as the Professor, but Sutton had the Ph.D. in pitching. For a decade, the best pitching analyst got to dissect the greatest rotation ever. Those were the days, my friends.
He wasn’t quite as deft at play-by-play, when he’d talk to excess. He and Skip would sometimes try to out-smart-aleck one another, which could get tedious. Those, however, were quibbles. The justifiably famous Braves broadcast crew got exponentially better with him in it, which is something you couldn’t say for Crosby, Stills & Nash when Neil Young hopped aboard. (And I yield to no one in my esteem for ol’ Neil, whose dad was Canada’s most illustrious sportswriter.)
Sutton died Monday night in his sleep. He was 75. He’d been away from the Braves the past two seasons, first because he broke his femur, which is the worst bone to break, and then because of cancer. They’re all gone now, the Fab Four — Skip Caray in 2008, Ernie Johnson Sr. in 2011, Pete in 2014. Those really were the days, were they not?
Oh, and one thing more: As sarcastic as Sutton could be, one topic reduced even him to fandom. Sandy Koufax has become an American rarity – a living legend who rarely gives an interview or is seen in public. Much of what I know about Koufax the man comes from Sutton, who had nothing but great things to report. (Remember, this is the guy who once punched Garvey, the All-American boy, in the eye.) “He’s a wonderful human being,” Sutton would say of Koufax, and here’s to report that Donald Howard Sutton could be pretty wonderful, too.