Of all the accolades from his Hall of Fame career, being the Dodgers franchise strikeout leader was one of the distinctions Don Sutton cherished the most.
Not because his record total of 2,696 was any round number. Or because the mark stood for the last 41 years of his life, from the time he set it in 1979 to his death in 2021.
Instead, what made it special to Sutton were the names he passed along the way — legends such as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale who were once his mentors and role models with whom he became forever linked.
“Being a part of the history of the franchise meant a lot to him,” Sutton’s son, Daron, said. “He always made me aware of those that helped him get to where he was. And those were the two guys on the list that he was chasing.”
Whenever Clayton Kershaw breaks Sutton’s franchise strikeout record, he will feel a similar way.
Kershaw is currently four strikeouts from passing Sutton’s mark, giving him the chance to do it at home on Saturday against the Detroit Tigers. Once he gets there, he’ll have surpassed Sutton in more than 100 fewer starts and close to 1,500 fewer innings.
To the 34-year-old left-hander, however, the value of the record is nostalgic, not numeric. He doesn’t view it as a reflection of his own career dominance, or any individual supremacy. Rather, it will be another reminder of the Dodgers’ storied history — and his place within it.
“For myself to be with the Dodgers for that long and have a chance to do that is really cool,” Kershaw said. “Because it’s not some team that showed up 20 years ago. It’s been around a long time.”
The record wasn’t on Kershaw’s radar coming into the season. But after striking out 13 during seven perfect innings in his season debut, then seven more in his second start against the Atlanta Braves, he quickly got within range of breaking it.
While Kershaw failed to break the mark during his most recent outing in San Diego last weekend, when he racked up only three strikeouts against the Padres, it set up the opportunity for the record-breaking moment to occur Saturday.
“That’s why I didn’t strike out many guys in San Diego,” Kershaw joked this week, standing in front of his locker during the Dodgers’ road series in Arizona. “But hopefully, it happens. We’ll see.”
Kershaw said he didn’t cross paths with Sutton much before his death last year, meeting him only a couple times during the Dodgers’ trips to Atlanta, where Sutton worked as a broadcaster for the Braves.
But like the rest of the Dodgers’ iconic lineage of pitchers, Kershaw knows plenty about the significance of Sutton’s career — which included 16 seasons, four All-Star selections, and one ERA title with the Dodgers, who retired his No. 20 in 1998.
Sutton is still the franchise leader in many other pitching categories. His 233 wins are 14 more than anyone else, and 45 more than Kershaw. He has the most starts, innings pitched and shutouts, as well, all of which appear safe amid baseball’s recent shift to more conservative pitcher usage.
Sutton always had a particular affinity for the strikeout record, though, which epitomized not only his longevity (he made at least 30 starts in 13 of his first 15 seasons with the Dodgers) but also his craftiness with an underwhelming but ultra-effective pitching arsenal .
“Strikeouts are sexy,” said Daron, who still remembers watching games as a kid from Section 105 in the log level at Dodger Stadium. “The fact he could, throwing 88-90 mph, move up that strikeout list always meant a lot.”
Formerly a broadcaster for the Angels last year and previously the Arizona Diamondbacks, Daron has had an up-close view of much of Kershaw’s career. And, while there weren’t many similarities between his father’s pitching style and Kershaw’s, he did immediately notice a parallel in their demeanors.
“The competitiveness was very similar,” Daron said. “Once it’s his fifth day, he’s not there to be a cheerleader, he’s not there to be your buddy. He’s there to win. And that really reminded me of my father when he pitched.”
Usually, that competitiveness has kept Kershaw from overindulging in personal milestone moments. Even after last week’s start in San Diego, he downplayed the significance of the strikeout record chase.
“I don’t really think about that,” Kershaw said. “I’ve never really tried to think about strikeouts.”
But a few days later, Kershaw did acknowledge the historical meaning that comes with the distinction.
“I’m not one for really worrying about the individual stuff,” he said. “But at the same time, it is a cool fact. I do understand that.”
And though Sutton won’t be around to witness Kershaw break it, his son thinks he knows exactly how he would feel.
“He really celebrated the successes of others,” Daron said. “I know he’d be very excited.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.