When the Seattle Mariners used just five starters last year, it was hailed as a remarkable achievement.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers did the same thing in 1966 — the only other team since 1904 to accomplish the feat — it was barely noticed.
Call it a reflection of differing expectations. The extraordinary Dodgers rotation — which included Sandy Koufax in his last year and Don Sutton in his rookie year, along with yet another future Hall of Famer, Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen, who won 196 games — was far more within the lines of commonplace production in that era.
"I didn't realize it was a big deal then," said Sutton, who went 12-12 as a Dodgers rookie in '66. "It was my first year, and I thought, well, Koufax and Drysdale and Osteen are going to the post; I would, too. It never dawned on me to think it was anything noteworthy. At the time, it was something everyone tried to do — use as few starters as possible."
Added Sutton, with a good-natured tweak at modern-day hurlers: "If you didn't have a bone sticking through, you'd go pitch. We didn't have flu-like symptoms back then."
Those four produced all but eight of the Dodgers' starts, with the remaining eight going to Joe Moeller — five of those in the second game of doubleheaders.
"It was kind of like a 4½-man rotation," said Moeller, now the advance scout for the Florida Marlins. "I pitched about once a week. Here was Koufax, Sutton and Drysdale, now in the Hall of Fame, and Osteen, who would go on to win 20 games a couple of times. There wasn't a lot of room. I pitched so little, I took classes at a junior college that summer and studied in the bullpen."
The Dodgers' season had gotten off to a disquieting start, when Koufax and Drysdale engineered a joint holdout that had Dodgers fans — and management — in a tizzy. The duo finally settled on a contract in late March, but not before their absence caused the Dodgers to re-think their rotation.
Both Sutton and Moeller believe the holdout facilitated their place on the team by giving them a longer look in spring training. Sutton's spot was solidified when Johnny Podres, a World Series hero for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, was traded to the Tigers after pitching in one game (in relief).
"I was going to send them a telegram and tell them to keep holding out," Moeller said with a laugh. "It gave me a chance in spring training. I made the club because they held out."
"If they didn't hold out, I'd have gone to Triple-A," said Sutton, now a broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves.
When Koufax and Drysdale finally reported, Sutton was a rookie surrounded by baseball royalty.
"I like to wonder, what would have happened if I had gone anyplace else?" Sutton mused. "I'd honestly say I don't think I'd be in the Hall of Fame. There couldn't have been a more ideal situation for a young pitcher to come into. Each of them — Sandy, Don, Claude, too, who was a wonderful, nice guy — was generous, kind with his time. They had tremendous respect for the game, and they led me through it."
Not surprisingly, the Dodgers won the National League pennant in a very tight race, despite an anemic offensive attack. But they didn't clinch until the second game of a season-ending doubleheader in Philadelphia, Drysdale failing to win the opener to force them to use Koufax in the second game.
Koufax beat the Phillies' Jim Bunning, and Drysdale opened the World Series against Baltimore on one day's rest. They lost, 5-2, starting the Dodgers on the way to a shocking sweep at the hands of the Orioles, who limited the Dodgers to just two runs in four games, the last three games shutouts.
"The team was out of gas," said Mariners announcer Ron Fairly, an outfielder/first baseman on the '66 Dodgers. "Just to win the pennant completely drained us. When we got into the World Series, we were done. There were about eight or nine teams that could have beat us."
After the World Series, the baseball world was rocked with the stunning news that Koufax — just 30 years old and coming off a 27-win season, had retired. Koufax, who had battled arthritis for years, said he was unwilling to cope with the pain any longer.
"I had no idea whatsoever that was coming," Moeller said. "It was not exactly the year you retire, winning 27. He decided he wanted to go out on top, which was very good. Sandy was probably the most humble, modest person you could meet. He threw a no-hitter in Philadelphia and got on the bus next to me. He talked about the bad pitches he had thrown. I would have been running up and down the aisles."
Said Sutton: "I know he was just tired of the anti-inflammatories and the ice. Every night he pitched on the road, the bus was late because of the ritual he had to go through. It was a roller-coaster for him psychologically. You could see the stress on him after games.
"Koufax was the most dominant pitcher I ever saw, and the classiest man. He was the Fred Astaire and Cary Grant of baseball players. Some players I consider elegant; Al Kaline and Koufax were elegant. I was blessed to spend a year with him."
The Mariners, Sutton said, should be proud of their achievement, particularly in light of the change in the pitching ethos in the ensuing 37 years.
"It's something special," he said. "You take the ball and do your job. I have great respect for guys who don't feel good and still go to the post — and if you're a pitcher, 50 percent of the time you're achy and sore, conditions are not ideal.
"I was very proud of them. They should be happy to be a part of the group they're in."