July 7, 2022

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40 years after memorable finale, Brewers make rare visit to Baltimore

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This story first appeared on MLB.com in January 2021 following the passing of Hall of Fame right-hander Don Sutton. We are resurfacing it to mark the Brewers’ rare visit to Baltimore for a three-game series beginning Monday, their first since 2003. It’s timely, considering this year is the 40th anniversary of the teams dueling for a division title, all the way down to one memorable day.

MILWAUKEE — With one regular-season game to go in 1982, the American League East was all tied up. Two future Hall of Famers would square off at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium for the division title: Don Sutton for the Brewers, Jim Palmer for the Orioles. It was precisely the sort of assignment that brought Sutton to Milwaukee a month earlier.

Sutton died in his sleep on January 18 at age 75, according to his son Daron, a onetime Brewers bat boy and later the team’s television play-by-play man. Daron was 11 years old when his dad took the mound in Baltimore on that Sunday afternoon and, in the same cool, professional fashion that led to 324 victories and 3,574 strikeouts over 23 Major League seasons for the Dodgers, Astros, Brewers, A’s and Angels, delivered a win.

“The Baltimore fans were on every pitch,” said Ted Simmons, Milwaukee’s catcher that day. “There was that guy standing with his hands on his hips, spelling, ‘O-R-I-O…’ I spelled Orioles out in my head every day for four years. It was so loud on that final day, I actually looked down my signs to make sure I was putting down the right one. If I wanted slider, OK, three. Look down.

“It was so loud you couldn’t have confidence in your own thought processes. I swear I was looking down to make sure I was putting down what I wanted to put down.”

The memories of that final series remain crisp for players like Simmons, who’d arrived in Baltimore days earlier with a three-game lead and four games to play. The roar grew with each passing day, with each Orioles victory. The Brewers were on the brink of blowing it.

“We don’t win the pennant without [Sutton],” former Brewers owner Bud Selig told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after learning of Sutton’s passing. “You can state that as a fact.”

The Brewers and Orioles were both charging toward the finish line when Milwaukee acquired Sutton from Houston on Aug. 30, 1982, for players to be named, who turned out to be promising outfielder Kevin Bass and pitchers Frank DiPino and Mike Madden. Sutton was already 37, but he had been aging well, having led the Majors with a 2.20 ERA in 1980, his last of 16 years with the Dodgers. He signed as a free agent with Houston that December.

Just as he arrived in Milwaukee, the Brewers suffered a crushing loss. Their closer, Rollie Fingers, another future Hall of Famer and the reigning AL MVP Award winner and Cy Young Award winner, suffered a career-altering arm injury in Game 1 of a doubleheader against Cleveland on Sept. 2. Sutton started — and lost — his Brewers debut in Game 2 that day. But Sutton rebounded and so did the Brewers, who were 17-11 in September, including victories in four of Sutton’s next five starts.

It came down to the final day. And Sutton almost never got to the mound.

He’d been suffering from an illness going into that weekend and asked the Brewers athletic trainer for an injection of penicillin. The Orioles team doctor reluctantly agreed, and administered the shots before the Brewers dropped both ends of a doubleheader on that Friday. Sutton awoke the next morning covered in welts from an allergic reaction. The Brewers lost again Saturday night. Going into Sunday’s regular-season finale, the teams had identical 94-67 records.

“I was laying awake that morning,” said Simmons. “My wife was there with me. It was 7:30, maybe. And I said, ‘I’ve got to talk to Sutton and I’ve got to talk to [pitching coach Cal] McLish. I’ve got to get them together and have breakfast. I didn’t know he was sick, but the thing I did know about Sutton was that he could execute. Peter [Vuckovich] was about to be Cy Young, but Sutton was a former Cy Young, and he could still execute. I had caught him all month.”

So, they met and pored over the Orioles, hitter by hitter.

Brewers GM Harry Dalton rarely visited the clubhouse, but he did that morning. Players who were eating breakfast froze, forks in mid-air. The morning din turned to quiet, and Dalton began to circle the room. 

“He told them, one at a time, how proud he was,” said Mario Ziino, who worked in the Brewers’ public relations department at the time and has become a defacto club historian. “Every single guy. He shook their hand and said, ‘We’re going to put this thing together. Forget about the last few games. I respect you.’ He said all the right things. Then Bud did the same thing.” 

Come game time, Palmer blinked first. Robin Yount hit solo home runs in the first and third innings as the Brewers built leads of 3-0 and 5-1 before blowing the game open with five runs in the ninth. Left fielder Ben Oglivie made the defensive play of the day in left field to quiet a budding Baltimore rally in the eighth inning against Sutton, who allowed eight hits and five walks but limited the damage to two runs over eight frames. The Brewers were AL East champs.

“That was Robin’s day, Don Sutton’s day, Ben Oglivie’s day,” Paul Molitor said. “We found a way to advance.”

The Brewers went on to win the only pennant in franchise history to date, beating the Angels in the AL Championship Series — Sutton pitched into the eighth inning to win Game 3 as Milwaukee bounced back from a 2-0 series deficit — before falling to the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series. Sutton started Games 2 and 6, both Brewers losses.

He pitched two more seasons in Milwaukee after that, and he became the eighth player in Major League history to top 3,000 career strikeouts on June 24, 1983, in a complete-game win over Cleveland at County Stadium. The Brewers traded Sutton to Oakland in December 1984 for right-hander Ray Burris and a couple of Minor Leaguers. In all, Sutton was 26-26 with a 3.86 ERA in 71 regular-season starts in a Brewers uniform.

“He worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known and he treated those he encountered with great respect … and he took me to work a lot,” Daron Sutton said while sharing news of his dad’s passing on Twitter. “For all these things, I am very grateful. Rest In Peace.”

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