Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When he was pitching for the Dodgers, Don Sutton was imbued with the notion that when you started a job, it should be your mission to finish it.
For this Alabama farm boy, whether you are pitching hay or digging post holes for erecting a fence, you don’t take a break until you have completed the assignment. Same attitude applied when it came to pitching. He didn’t go out to the mound for a brief sojourn, as the way it sometimes is in today’s game. Give him the ball, and he didn’t expect to give it back until the game was over.
A Hall of Famer who appeared in 750 games in his 23-year career, Sutton finished 180 games, one of the coveted statistics in his accomplished career in which he won 324 games. He says candidly that he is not sure he would be compatible with the way baseball is played today. A manager tells him he is starting and says, “Gimme five, son.” Five innings is a little more than half a game. Sutton expected to be a workhorse.
Sutton feels he has lived the American dream. He grew up in Clio, Ala., born unto sharecroppers. His father was 18 when he was born and his mother was 15. Tough times were as much a part of his life as sunups and sundowns, which he witnessed without the slightest clairvoyance that ahead of him lay the best of times.
He could never have imagined that he would someday arrive at spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., and mix with the storied names of Dodger history — Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, John Roseboro and Maury Wills. The manager was Walter Alston, and there is a foreboding look of reverence in his eyes when Sutton recalls the Dodger manager.
For years, his itinerant father — looking for an opportunity to make a better life for his family — moved about looking for work. It made an everlasting impression on his son, who would eventually come to know the good life. Los Angeles in the late ’60s was a city on the move, and the Hollywood elite found their way to Chavez Ravine, where they applauded country boys from Alabama if they could enable the Dodgers to gain the advantage in National League competition.
The Don Sutton story is one we can all appreciate. A boy, with austerity dogging him every step of the way, makes good and reaches the pinnacle of success by using his skill and talent to escape the provincial lifestyle that fate lay at his doorstep. Sport can be the great equalizer.
When he got the news in 1998 that he had been voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, he paused in reverence to remember, first of all, his parents. And then he ticked off the list of others who had given him an assist as he made his way from obscurity to the top of the mountain. He would have liked to gather them all on the farm he grew up on in Alabama, line them up, and give them high-fives, with a resounding and repeated chorus, “We did it.”
Pausing here last week as he prepared for a Braves spring training broadcast, he reflected genuinely and humbly on the wonderful ride he has experienced.
“I owe,” he said, “so much to so many.”
The honors box score is overflowing, and Sutton doesn’t boast of what he accomplished — but he knows his record is exceptional. He is grateful for each milestone or honor from winning 300-plus games to having his jersey retired by the Dodgers.
What he would like most in life as he looks to the past is to say to every high-school kid out there, no matter the challenge, you might just make it if you work harder than the next guy. The work ethic often trumps talent. When practice begins, imagine you are pitching hay on the wagon.
And don’t quit until the wagon is loaded.