Patti Sutton, 35, is petite, beautiful and meticulously dressed, the California-bred daughter of an affluent salesman for a machine tool company. Her husband, Don, 37, is 6’1″, handsome and an Alabama farm boy who now makes close to $1 million a year, having set the record for most wins by a Dodger pitcher (230 in 15 years) before moving to the Houston Astros in 1981. He also has one of the best one-line deliveries in the majors. Chronically accused by umpires of enhancing his deadly curve by applying “foreign substances” to the baseball, he once wryly demurred: “Not true at all—Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States.”
But behind Don’s jocularity and prosperity is a drive to succeed that, he now admits, almost broke up his 13-year marriage. After a couple of other brief and quiet split-ups, he left home at Thanksgiving in 1980 and this time tearfully told his eldest son, Daron, that the Sutton family was having problems. He returned by Christmas, and since then he and Patti have been struggling to resolve their differences together.
Recently they invited PEOPLE’S Sue Reilly to their home in Laguna Hills, a suburb 60 miles south of L.A., and described with sometimes painful candor what happened to them and how they have worked to overcome it. They did this, Patti says, “in the hope that what we learned about ourselves and marriage in general might help other couples who are struggling.”
Patti: Don and I have been through so much hell that, looking back, I realize our marriage was a step for which we were both unprepared. I had such a happy childhood in Burbank—pretty dresses, popularity, fun as a song leader in high school. I took premed courses at a church college—my older brother’s an M.D.—but I really just wanted to get married. I was brainwashed, the way most young women are, to believe that I would not only be taken care of but cherished and loved. It was going to be one lifelong romance.
Don: My parents were Christian fundamentalist tenant farmers in Clio, Ala. who had never made more than $40 a week. My mother was 15 and my father 18 when I was born. We always had enough to eat but we didn’t have any extras. I took part-time jobs to earn my own spending and clothing money. My younger brother and sister and I didn’t get a lot of pats on the back. We were expected to pull our weight. My parents were never openly affectionate, but we always knew they loved each other and us.
I was never a very giving person, emotionally, and it was difficult to deal with feelings because I had programmed myself for success and didn’t leave much room for anything else. I think I had two B’s in nine years of school and all the rest were A’s. I was always under the gun to perform. I missed a lot of personal relationships and, as they say, never took time to smell the roses.
At 12, I knew I wanted to be a ballplayer. I began working on my curve at 13. Today I can’t straighten out my right arm but I throw a hell of a curve. By 1966, at 21, I was playing in Dodger Stadium. I wasn’t at all intimidated. I just thought, “I belong here.”
Patti: I met Don in May 1967, when he was in his second year with the Dodgers and living with friends of my family. I’d never even seen a professional game. Once I remember watching him pitch eight and a half no-hit innings and wondering why everyone was getting so excited. After an on-again, off-again beginning, he started sending flowers. By August of the next year I was on the Dodger plane to meet his family at a game in Houston. My parents are religious—churchgoing Baptists. But they are also so outgoing and loving that I was really confused by Don’s. His folks are not demonstrative. I didn’t know if they liked me or not. But one evening not long after that, Don took me out under the plum tree in our backyard and asked me to marry him. I was thrilled but I was also scared. He seemed so aloof. About 1,000 people were invited to our October 1968 wedding, including a lot of the Dodgers and their wives, but the night before I cried for hours. I told my mother I just wasn’t sure. Don seemed so remote.
On our honeymoon in Carmel I remember thinking I’d married a stranger. I know now almost every newlywed has those feelings, but I had been so protected I was totally unhinged.
Don: Early in the marriage I became the father figure and thought that was my role. I had never really known deep emotions so I didn’t know what was missing. Patti was the opposite—she thought deciding which aspirins to buy was an emotional experience. Patti knew things weren’t right and tried to explain it to me. I was shocked. I thought she had a pretty good deal. I expected blind loyalty.
Patti: I was miserable. But by the time Daron arrived in 1969, I was loving being a Dodger wife, mostly because the other wives were wonderful. Patsy Brewer, Jeannie Lefebvre and Lee Moeller went out of their way to see that I learned the ropes. Then Staci came, and we moved to our dream house in Calabasas, Calif. in 1974. It was all quite neat and tidy—two children, Don doing well on the Dodgers, our beautiful home.
But for years I felt that Don and I were not connecting. I was focused on him and he was focused on baseball. He’d think he was making me feel better by buying me something. I’d tell him I wanted him to share his life with me, to cherish me. Don would look confused and say that if I could be more specific he’d try to do what I wanted. I just cried. At one point he got so angry over my nagging he said, “Look, if you died in a plane crash today I’d go out and pitch my rotation tomorrow.” He was trying to tell me he had a job to do and I was distracting him. He couldn’t understand my needs at all.
And there were rumors that Don was not faithful to me. I’d call him at 3 a.m. when he was on the road and demand an explanation if he didn’t answer. By the fall of 1980 he agreed to seek marriage counseling. The first adviser we saw basically said she didn’t have much hope for us. I was desperate. I felt that Don was an acquaintance, that I didn’t know anything about him. I started having feelings for one of my kids’ coaches—he was very dear and we had a lot of cups of coffee and a lot of talks. I saw in him all the qualities I considered Don lacked.
Then about a month before Christmas I overheard a phone call between Don and another girl, an actress. I just snapped. I told Don to pack up and get out. He knew I was serious and he locked himself in the bathroom and cried for four hours. It was more emotion than I’d ever seen him display over anything.
Don: When she asked me to leave it hit me hard. I felt like a broken man. I felt like the Lord had broken me. I love my wife and I love my kids and I couldn’t give that up. I never thought I needed anyone before, but I knew then I had been wrong.
Patti: Don had told me before in his matter-of-fact way that if we broke up I’d be the one to suffer, but this time I knew he was going through hell. I felt really lost too. He’d signed with Houston and all my family and friends were in California. I didn’t see how I could leave everything for an uncertain future with a man who didn’t seem to care about me. Everything was in a shambles.
Don: After one false start with a counselor, we met Tim Timmons, a nondenominational Newport Beach, Calif, pastor who works with high-visibility people, particularly athletes. Tim pointed out that we needed help to communicate. I had always argued to win. He taught us to argue to resolve conflict, not to shoot to hurt, and to learn to listen. Because both of us came from strong religious backgrounds and were family-oriented, we were willing to learn.
During our counseling, I’ve realized just how much I had sacrificed by being such a closed person. I had been locked up tight. Once I began to open up, Patti became less afraid and more secure. We bought our new house in Laguna Hills in September 1981. For the first time I feel we have a home.
During the season I live in a condo in Houston. It causes a lot of pressure—in terms of both temptation and distance from Patti—that we’d rather not have right now. That’s why I’ve talked about transferring to the Dodgers or the Angels.
Patti: I still have those urges to call him at 3 a.m., but I’m working on trusting. We are learning to appreciate each other’s strong points. I can look to Don for his determination. He can look to me for my softer qualities—sensitivity and emotionalism.
Don: I think we can survive our problems. I realize now that I turned myself into a winning machine. Everything had to be business with me—even my marriage. I think if I could have figured out a way to program making love, I would have done it. But I’m trying to change and I think I’m a better person for having been through this.