- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Don Sutton has seen this movie before, back in 1989, when he was describing the action in the booth for an Atlanta Braves team that lost 97 games.

“One of my broadcast partners used to say after the first inning when the team would score three runs, he would say, ‘Well, we’ll get them tomorrow night,’ ” Sutton said. “Early in the first inning, people would start saying. ‘Wait ‘til next year.’ ”

But he said it didn’t take away from his joy for the game and the job. Now as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a respected broadcaster, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network’s new analyst for Nationals telecasts said he still expects to have as much fun as he did in 1989 despite the prospects of calling the action for what appears to be at least an equally bad Nationals squad.

“I am looking forward to seeing how good some of these young guys are going to be,” said Sutton, who called last night’s game against his old team, the Braves, on MASN. “I am a fan of a lot of these young players. I think it will be an exciting time.”

That depends on one’s definition of excitement.

But one has to admit, if the Nationals are going to be very bad this year, they have surrounded themselves at least with people who are, at least publicly, refusing to believe the forecasts of doom or the implications of a historically bad season.

The Nationals were the butt of jokes on yesterday’s “Cold Pizza” show on ESPN2, with baseball writer Buster Olney telling stories about scouts around baseball establishing an NCAA-bracket like contest to see how many games Washington is going to lose this year, with the guesses ranging from 105 to 130. A national baseball writer came to Viera yesterday to pretty much write about how manager Manny Acta is going to cope with managing such a bad team

Acta responded as he always has — that it doesn’t bother him, and everyone has the right to say whatever he or she wants.

“I’m here, and I know this team is going to be better than a lot of people think, and we’re going to make it better,” Acta said. “It’s a lot easier to turn this team around and win, when I think back, 30 years ago, where I grew up and where I was. And to even think I was going to be managing the big leagues — I think anything is possible.”

Sutton, in some ways, is of the same stock. He grew up in a small town in Alabama, in a poor family where nobody had gone beyond the 10th grade. Yet he said he grew up dreaming of being a big league pitcher and a Hall of Famer someday. So like Acta, Sutton believes in possibilities.

“Are there going to be bumps in the road?” Sutton said. “Yes. Is this club going to win the World Series this year? Not in all likelihood. But is it going to be a fun club to watch? I think so. I think there are a lot of ingredients that will make this a good ballclub to be around.”

Because he was there in 1989 and saw the Braves — the franchise the Nationals’ blueprint is supposedly based on, with the connection to former Braves boss and Nationals team president Stan Kasten — rise from the depths of that 97-loss season to one that won 14 straight division titles, Sutton compared the two at each stage of its beginning.

“The Braves didn’t even have the foundation pieces then,” Sutton said. “When [general manager] John Schuerholz got there, you could see the changes, and Bobby Cox moving into the manager’s role. There was an emphasis on putting a foundation in place. John asked his people, ‘What are our prime assets?’ and they said young pitchers, a year or two away. He asked, ‘What can we do to help them? Let’s find some people to catch the ball.’ So they got Sid Bream and Terry Pendleton and Rafael Belliard and Otis Nixon to help those young pitchers develop.

“In comparing the franchises, I think most of those ingredients are already in place with the Nationals,” Sutton said. “You have a good third baseman in Ryan Zimmerman, a good first baseman if Nick Johnson is well. [Catcher] Brian Schneider is well respected. [Center fielder] Nook Logan could be a modern day Otis Nixon, so the ingredients are there. I think top to bottom, the foundation is better offensively.

“What may have been a plus for the Braves is that at the time they were just waiting for Kent Mercker, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery to burst on the scene. For the Nationals, that may be a few years away. The building blocks for pitching may not be as close as everyone would like. But when you look at the other phases of the game, I think the building blocks are a lot further along.”

And if those building blocks of pitchers ever asked Sutton, with 324 major league victories for the Dodgers, Astros, Brewers, Athletics and Angels on his resume, for help, would he offer it?

“I would probably say how much time do you have, and is it OK with Randy [St. Claire],” Sutton said. “Randy is the pitching coach, and I honor and respect titles. It’s his job. If Randy said to me, ‘Chad Cordero wants to work on a curve ball, you busy?’ I would say, ‘What time?’ There were people who gave me time in my career, from Carl Erskine to Sandy Koufax to Don Drysdale. I have plenty of time, and I lost over 250 ballgames, so I should have learned something, too.”

One thing he might have never learned is to listen to people who predict failure, which might make him the perfect television presence for the Washington Nationals this year.

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