Monday, May 4, 2009

Don Sutton and his "blister"

The Diamondbacks were in town to play the Brewers this weekend and, on Saturday, I was able to attend an event where Daron Sutton, Arizona's television voice, spoke for an hour. Daron is also the son of Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Sutton, and a former minor leaguer. As you can imagine then, he had a number of interesting stories to tell, from his days as a ballboy on his father's teams to recent years working with the Brewers and D-backs. It was an entertaining talk, but there was one story that I found most intriguing. I'll paraphrase:
Sometime in 1986 or '87, the Yankees came to Anaheim to play the Angels. The Angels didn't have quite the tv coverage that the Yankees did, so, during the game, the clubhouse tvs in Anaheim were showing the Yankees' broadcast of the game. Don Sutton was pitching for the Angels that night and, at one point during the game, Daron, who was the Angels' ballboy at the time, noticed that the Yankees' broadcasters were zooming in on Don as he was rubbing the ball in his hands. The broadcasters seemed to notice something brown on Don's glove hand and were discussing it rather heatedly. Daron, being the good son that he was, ran over to his dad and said, "Hey Dad, I don't need you to tell me anything, but you should probably know that the Yankees tv guys noticed something on your glove hand as you were rubbing up the ball. Just thought you should know."

Don quietly looked at Daron and said "Thanks, son," and that was that. After the game, all the reporters filed into the clubhouse and eagerly wanted to know what it was that the tv cameras found on Don's hand. Don looked at them kind of funny and showed them his pitching hand. There was something brown there alright, but all it was was a little circular band-aid, the kind that you might place over a blister. "I was just protecting a blister," Don told them. "Nothing sinister."
Everyone laughed at his story. Don Sutton had almost been caught illegally scuffing up the ball, but, thanks to his son seeing the Yankees talk about it on the television broadcast, nothing happened. It's a funny, good-humored story. But it wasn't over yet. For twenty years, that was all Daron knew about that game. In 2006, though, he was working a Fox Saturday game of the week with Lou Piniella, the manager of those Yankees, and Lou, unprompted, told him the other side of the story. Again, I'll paraphrase:
Lou remembered managing a Yankees-Angels game in California one night when, in the middle of the game, one of the clubhouse kids dragged an office phone and its 50-foot long cord into the dugout. "Mr. Piniella, it's Mr. Steinbrenner. He wants to talk to you."

Lou told the kid to hang up the phone and go away. He did, but the phone rang again 10 seconds later. "Mr. Piniella, it's Mr. Steinbrenner again. He says he needs to talk to you."

Again, Lou had the kid hang up on George and, again, he called back 5 seconds later. "Mr. Piniella!"

Finally, Lou took the phone. George was on the line. "Lou! The tv cameras found something on Sutton's hand! He's scuffing up the ball! For God's sake, go out and talk to the umpire! He's cheating, and you need to catch him!"

"For the love of God, George! We had Tommy John pitching for us yesterday, and who do you think Sutton learned it from?! And Rick Rhoden's pitching tomorrow night. Who do you think taught it to him? Do you really want me to talk to the umpire about it when we have Sutton's teacher and his student pitching for us right now?!"
The crowd cracked up, including me. It was, after all, a very funny story. George Steinbrenner wants Lou Piniella to bust Don Sutton for cheating, but Piniella won't because he knows he has two pitchers who do the same thing on his own staff - there's a lot to appreciate there, in the "nudge-nudge-wink-wink, I know that you know and you know that I know, but let's never bring it up" kind of way. All in good fun, I guess you could say.

Looking into it, it appears to be almost completely accurate, as far as the facts are concerned (who knows about the specific comments made). On August 24, 1987, the Yankees faced the Angels, with Tommy John matching up against Don Sutton (Rick Rhoden had pitched the previous night). The write-up from the next day's LA Times does a good job explaining all the details:
But the most interesting sideshow of the night occurred in the early innings with Sutton pitching for the Angels. Sutton had nothing to do with the final decision, but for seven innings, he maintained the keen attention of New York television viewers, who were treated to camera close-ups of a tape-like substance that appeared to be attached to Sutton's left hand.

Monday's game was broadcast to the New York area, and during the first inning, television station WPIX trained its cameras on Sutton. The television feed was also displayed in the Anaheim Stadium press box, showing shots of Sutton's hands between pitches.

A small patch, which resembled an adhesive bandage, could be seen on the palm of Sutton's left hand. The camera then showed Sutton holding the ball in his right hand before bringing his hands together and rubbing the baseball.

Sutton was the center of a scuff-ball controversy during his last start, when Baltimore Orioles coach Frank Robinson requested an inspection of the pitcher, resulting in three baseballs being removed from play by umpire Don Denkinger. But Monday, the Yankees did not ask for any baseballs to be checked, although home plate umpire Rick Reed did remove the ball Sutton used to strike out Rick Cerone in the fifth inning.

The replays reportedly created quite a stir on the East Coast. Yankee publicist Harvey Greene reported that several New York newspapers received numerous phone calls from incensed viewers.

Afterward, Sutton met with the press only long enough to say the foreign object was a bandage covering a blister.

"I suppose you're not going to buy it if I tell you it was a picture of my kids," Sutton quipped. "And you're probably not going to buy it if I tell you it was covering up a blister, which it was.

"I give you my word that it was not sandpaper, it was not an emery board-and I don't mind being checked on the mound any time. And that's all I can tell you."

Mauch claimed he was not aware of any incident involving Sutton until Angel General Manager Mike Port told him of the television replays after the game.

"I didn't know there was any commotion until I came in this room," Mauch said. "All I know is that he had a blister on his hand. If what I saw is accurate, there's nothing to discuss. He was kidding around in the dugout early in the game, and I saw a blister on the palm of his left hand."

The Yankees were not privy to such video assistance, which may have been one reason why they didn't protest.

Then again, there might have been another reason: Their starting pitcher, Tommy John, has also been suspected of doctoring the baseball. No sense in stirring things up by demanding the other guy be frisked.
The American League did, supposedly, investigate the incident in the ensuing days, but I can't seem to find anything saying that he was disciplined. Jim Palmer, a long-time Sutton opponent, didn't seem to believe Sutton at the time. Sutton, of course, angrily denied any cheating:
Palmer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner with the Baltimore Orioles, told the Associated Press Tuesday that Sutton once showed him how to doctor a baseball by gluing a piece of sandpaper onto his glove hand.

"Don told me to just take some sandpaper and Super Glue, put it on your glove hand and when you rub the ball, kind of scuff it," Palmer said.

Palmer hadn't seen the replays of Monday night's game between the Angels and the New York Yankees but laughed when told that a television close-up showed a dark-colored patch on the palm of Sutton's left hand.

"He may have had a paper cut," Palmer said.

Palmer also talked about a 1982 game when he accused Sutton of scuffing the baseball.

"It was the final game of the 1982 season," he said. "Don was with Milwaukee then and pitching against me. He had rubbed (then American League President) Lee MacPhail's name from the ball.

"I showed it to the umpire, and he just kind of laughed.

When apprised of Palmer's comments, Sutton reacted angrily.

"It sounds like he's trying to further his career at the expense of my interests," Sutton said. "And he's full of blank."

Sutton actually used the word blank.
I'm tempted here to make some comments about Alex Rodriguez, steroids, and/or pitch tipping, but I'm not sure there's much I can say. Plus, I'm afraid that it'll look too much like I'm trying to condone or excuse away some anti-competitive behavior from A-Rod. It's rarely a winning proposition when you set out to defend one Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez.

I do wonder, though, what makes us laugh at these kinds of stories when we hear them, but scoff and bloviate when we hear about A-Rod or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire. Rob Neyer put it well last week:
I'm not near my books, so I can't offer an examples. But the oral histories are loaded with examples of pitch-tipping. Usually it's the catcher telling the batter what's coming next -- just like in Bull Durham -- but sometimes it's the pitcher telling the batter, and I don't suppose that A-Rod would be the first fielder to tip the batter, either. Usually it's a favor to the batter -- to get him out of a slump, or help him hit his 500th home run, or whatever -- with no expected reciprocation.

It's all one of a piece, though. And when it's an old story, everyone smiles and laughs and finds it all just so amusing. When it's Alex Rodriguez, we ask the Commissioner what's going to be done about it. I actually lean toward doing something about it -- again, if you can prove it -- but once again I'm struck by the double-standard.
I agreed with it then, but, after hearing that story about as straight-from-the-horse's-mouth as you can get, it seems even more true to me now. I doubt there's anything we can ever do about it, but at least we can recognize it when it shows up.


tHeMARksMiTh said...

Very interesting. Is there a "sandpaper" to help with television broadcasts?

The Common Man said...

Great story, Lar. Loved every word of it. And it does nicely inform on our current discussions about rule breaking and unwritten rules.

Ian said...

I think the double standard exists because we want guys like Alex Rodriguez to be the best of the best. When we look back on A-Rod's career we want to believe we saw an all-time elite player. The same goes for McGwire and Bonds.

Don Sutton may be in the Hall of Fame, but he's not in the discussion for the greatest pitcher of all time or even of his era. We can forgive him if he bends the rules a little to get an advantage. If we can't believe that Rodriguez, arguably the best player of his generation, is capable of being the best without cheating, who are we supposed to believe in?