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MIKE PENNER

Sutton Deserves to Stand in Hall

December 19, 1993|MIKE PENNER

You knew this day was coming ever since the fateful night of June 18, 1986, when a 41-year-old guy in a perm reared back and threw enough scuffballs--er, pardon me, "sinkerballs" --past the Texas Rangers to win the 300th game of his major league career.

And now that day has arrived, along with the morning's mail, in the form of a ballot bearing the letterhead of the Baseball Writers' Assn. of America.

There he is, listed right behind Bruce Sutter and right before Luis Tiant.

Don Sutton--master of deception and allegedly the toolbox, slow-burning candle that provided a steady glow but seldom brilliance--is eligible for the Hall of Fame.

You have less than two weeks to decide:

Does he belong there?

Is it too early to request an extension?

Sutton is perched firmly on the fence, sidled up alongside Phil Niekro, who learned last year that 300 victories are not what they used to be--automatic passage through the gates of Cooperstown.

No, sheer numbers are no longer enough, even though Sutton has those in spades--324 victories, 3,574 strikeouts, 58 shutouts, 3.26 career earned-run average.

No, in this age of Bill James best-sellers and novel-length studies on "The Effect of the Metrodome Air-Conditioning System on Kirby Puckett's Home Run Totals (1984-1992)," it's how those numbers are interpreted that matters in polls of this sort.

Sutton may be the ultimate case study in that perennial Hall of Fame argument, Marathon vs. Sprint.

Should Sutton be rewarded for enduring the long haul, weathering 23 seasons and more major league starts (756) than any man other than Cy Young, seasons in which he averaged a workmanlike 14 victories and 155 strikeouts?

Or should Sutton be penalized for winning 20 games in a single season only once, or for never winning the Cy Young Award, or for making the All-Star team four times, or for conducting his career to the tone of a leaky faucet--filling the bucket slowly, drip by drip, instead of with a heady rush?

Sutton won more games than Tom Seaver, Lefty Grove, Early Wynn, Jim Palmer, Bob Feller and Bob Gibson. Hall of Famers, all of them. Sutton also outlasted all of them, pitching nearly a quarter-century. Stay on the mound that long, cranking out 30 to 35 starts a year, and those victories are going to be hard to avoid, even if you pitch for the Angels, which Sutton did, briefly.

Victory No. 300 came during Sutton's Angel tenure, which lasted from September 1985 through the end of the 1987 season. That victory was one of 15 for Sutton in 1986, a typical Don Sutton season: 15-11, 3.74 earned-run average, 115 strikeouts.

Also typical was Sutton's role on that Angel staff: fourth starter, behind Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill and John Candelaria. This is where the anti-Sutton lobby hunkers down. The Hall of Fame is for superstars, not sidekicks, and Sutton spent virtually all his career as best supporting actor.

Only three times in 23 seasons was Sutton the acknowledged ace of his team's pitching staff--in 1973, when he won 18 games for Walter Alston; in 1976, his lone 20-victory season; and in 1984, when he finished 14-12 for a last-place Milwaukee club.

Elsewhere, Sutton served dutifully in someone else's shadow. With the Dodgers, it was either Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale or Claude Osteen or Al Downing or Andy Messersmith or Tommy John or Burt Hooton or Rick Sutcliffe or Jerry Reuss. With Houston, Nolan Ryan. With the Angels, Witt and McCaskill.

In 1980, the one time Sutton led the league in ERA (2.21), he finished fourth on the Dodgers in victories (13)--behind Reuss, Hooton and Bob Welch.

Yet, Sutton ranks fifth on the all-time strikeout list, ahead of Walter Johnson, and 10th on the all-time shutout list, ahead of Steve Carlton, who is also on this year's ballot and considered a lock while Sutton is, at best, a pick-'em.

Compare the numbers, though. Carlton pitched 24 years, Sutton 23. Carlton won 329 games, Sutton 324. Carlton worked 5,216 innings, Sutton 5,282. Carlton finished with a 3.22 ERA, Sutton 3.26.

If Carlton goes in, Sutton has the statistical clout to be there at his side, which, come to think of it, would come in handy. Someone has to talk to the press. Sutton could handle it for the both of them, and later invite the BBWAA over to the house for cheese-and-wine tasting.

The way I look at it, if Catfish Hunter can make the Hall of Fame, Sutton belongs in there, too. Hunter and Sutton have identical career ERAs, but Hunter won 224 games--100 fewer than Sutton--and won half of those from 1971 to 1975, when he assembled five successive 20-victory seasons.

Basically, Hunter pitched like a Hall of Famer for five seasons, and good-to-fair for the other 10.

How does one measure five shooting-star seasons against 23 years of day-in, day-out dependability?

Is it better to shine brighter or longer?

Shouldn't Cooperstown make space for both kinds of lighting?

My ballot will be sent back with ol' Chia Head's name on it. I must admit, however, to being mildly disappointed when I opened the envelope and found Sutton listed, along with Carlton and Vida Blue and all the others, on a sheet of standard grade typing paper--white-pulp stock, suitable for business letters.

With Sutton, I was expecting sandpaper.

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