Don Sutton: Great at pitching, greater at talking about it

Former Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax, left, and Don Sutton chat before an old-timers game at Dodger Stadium Saturday, June 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Former Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax, left, and Don Sutton chat before an old-timers game at Dodger Stadium Saturday, June 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

I didn’t like Don Sutton. I grew up tracking the Reds, and he was very good at beating the Reds at a time when almost nobody did. Plus, he looked kind of arrogant – all the Dodgers’ pitchers did – while beating them. Plus, he had a publicized clubhouse dust-up with Steve Garvey, who was the first person to tell me, when I became a sportswriter, that I asked good questions. He also was the last person to tell me I asked good questions, but I digress.

I didn’t like Don Sutton – until I met him. He’d retired as a player and joined the justifiably famous Braves broadcast crew. Not everybody who sat in the TV/radio booths with Ernie, Pete and Skip proved a mesh. Sutton seemed an odd choice – he’d worked for five big-league teams, but never the Braves, and he’d killed the Braves during his career – but doggone if it didn’t work. He brought an edge that played well off Pete’s numbers and Skip’s jokes and Ernie’s gentility. He brought a quality we didn’t know we’d been missing until he showed up.

My late former colleague Jeffrey Denberg had a baseline approach to announcers: He deemed them all empty vessels until proved otherwise. Sutton proved otherwise. “I learn something every time I listen to him,” Jeff said, and I learned from Jeff to listen especially hard when Sutton was talking. Thus did I get educated, too.

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.