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The voices of the D-backs: A chat with Daron Sutton and Mark Grace

Sutton and Grace at their first official function together, launching the Sedona Red colors in November 2006.
Sutton and Grace at their first official function together, launching the Sedona Red colors in November 2006.

Diamondbacks fans who watch the games on TV will be very familiar with Daron Sutton and Mark Grace, who have been providing the regular play-by-play and color commentary together for the team since the former came to Arizona before the 2007 season. Sutton is the son of Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Sutton, and pitched two seasons for the Angels and Braves organization before moving to the booth. Grace, of course, was part of the Diamondbacks' 2001 World Series winning team, and for the past three years has also been covering national games on Saturday afternoons for FOX.

As a scan of any online forum will show, it's a pairing that provokes a wide range of reactions among fans, from adoration to near-hate - but they're certainly impossible to ignore. However, it's not often they speak about themselves. Last week, I had the chance to speak to Daron, and a little to Mark, before a game against the Giants, and took the opportunity to quiz them on commentating, the state of the game and the Diamondbacks - as well as  the most important query of all. Should it be the Racing Gracies or the Strutting Suttons?

To get to the press section at Chase, you take the lift up behind guest services; before the interview, I was given a quick tour of the facilities there, which includes the boardroom - a highly-swanky legacy from the Colangelo era, including such memorabilia as a Travis Lee jersey. There are separate booth for the home and visiting teams, as well as their radio counterparts - I got to chat to the Giants' guys for a bit, about the state of their team, and the pressing need for more offense in 2010.

There is a separate wing for the press, which also has a lounge and a cafeteria area to keep all the media well-fueled. The previous day, it had been named in honor of Joe Garagiola Sr., the Hall of Fame broadcaster, and there's a mural commemorating his long, highly-storied career running along the corridor. Among the pictures, is one of him interviewing John Lennon and Paul McCartney when Garagiola was guest-hosting The Tonight Show in 1968 [you can see a grainy clip - filmed off TV on 8mm! - of that here]; his broadcasting career hasn't been all baseball.

It was then time to go into the booth. It's probably smaller than you'd expect - it's quite long, in terms of facing the park, but doesn't extend back into the stands very far, and there's quite a lot of technology taking up space. I was placed in Mark Grace's chair - I had to restrain the urge to draw something rude on the Telestrator, which was just to my right - and introduced to Daron Sutton, who was just finishing up his pre-game preparations...

What's your "philosophy of commentating"? When you cover a game, who are you speaking to?
I'm always speaking to 'fans.' I feel like not only am I speaking to 'diehard' fans, which represent a small amount of our audience, but I'm speaking to 'casual' fans as well. It always means a lot to me when I grow in my knowledge of the game and someone like yourself will bring something up and say, "I really enjoyed that interview or that discussion or that topic you guys talked about."

But it also means a lot to me when a husband comes up and he says, "Hey, thanks," and I say, "Thanks for what?" "You guys reached out to my wife and kids and they enjoyed it, so now I'm allowed to put it on the main TV." If we're winning fans that way too, teenage boys when baseball's not as popular with the young people, when we're approached by those guys at the mall, the youngsters... So when I say "fans," I'm talking to all fans, and I really consider that, whether it's a little bit use of humor, maybe sidetracking away from the game for a moment, and/or teaching the game. Pitch grips, guys talking about the way they approach it. It's a simple answer, but's also more in-depth: I talk to the fans.

What is most important: educating, informing or entertaining your audience?
All three. My answer is "Yes." Because there are certain games where entertaining doesn't fit in much, but there are other games - and a lot of them, unfortunately, this year - where it fits in a lot more. Now, entertaining doesn't always mean humor. It can mean biographical stuff; Ryan Roberts being a new father, and what that's like. Not necessarily anything statistical, or his approach at the plate, but it has changed his life forever. So that's something which falls more under the entertainment side.

But you have to do all three. It's my responsibility to inform. It's my responsibility to educate. I've always been a believer that especially on television, which is a visual medium, then the things we can show, the things that Gracie or Matt Williams or Tom Candiotti or, now, Luis Gonzalez can talk about, through their experiences - we have to use that a lot. We also have to hear from players: I love when players give tips to fans. I feel like the diehard fan knows how to get what they want, they can find all the stats they want on the Internet. I have to find the pertinent ones that apply to all fans. I like to give someone like yourself, something you couldn't find anywhere, and I hope I do that at least once each day.

Do you adjust your style based on your partner?
Probably yes, but it's not a conscious effort. I've always felt like the guy without the big voice, the guy without the true broadcaster's pedigree - that's me. And that one of my biggest strengths is that I hope I make the person I work with better. I hope I bring out more of their personality, more of their insights into the game. I hope for a guy that talks quite a bit, I leave some open spaces for them to really show it.

It's more subconscious, unless I'm working with a Luis Gonzalez, in his first-ever game, or Craig Biggio in a nationally-televised game [the AFLAC All-American game], his first-ever game. Then I'm conscientiously making sure that I turn, I'm looking at them, I'm engaging them. But even with Joe Garagiola for a couple of years - and, man, I miss him - do I really need to bring out my knowledge of the history of the game, or do I need just to have a conversation with Joe about the game? And Joe proved to me, he really wanted to break the game down. He didn't want me handing him a pacifier, "Tell us about your days in St. Louis." He'd get there if he wanted to. So the good ones like Gracie, and Matty with more experience, and Candy, even Joe, and his 'legendary' status - they'll get to where they want to.

How do you strike a balance between being a fan of the team and impartiality?
That's one of the biggest challenges. Because when you spend time with these guys, when you show up in February, and you watch them and you get to now them, you naturally become a fan - you want them to do well. It's not when things go well - I'll never apologize for yelling when a guy hits a home-run, for getting excited. My goodness, that's what we all want, and maybe I go a little bit further than some.

But where you struggle with becoming a fan is when you have to be critical. Now, in that sense, it's as my wife says to me when we have a disagreement, "It's all in your tone." If the hitter is 1-for-30, then he's 1-for-30, and I will tell you that on the air. If he's struggling with runners in scoring position, then he's struggling, and I have to give you those stats.  But as a player who got released twice... I played pro-ball. I am one of the play-by-play guys that played. I know how hard this game is. So when I says it's all in your tone - I'll give you the stats, but I'm not going to talk down to the guy. I'm not going to say, "I can't believe he's still in the line-up." That's just not me. I'll always be a fan, and it'll be hard for me to ever change that. But when a guy's struggling, I have to point that out.

Do you ever watch baseball for entertainment, or is that too much like work?
I watch it for entertainment in the post-season. For entertainment too, and not just on television. When we're on the road and we have an off-day, I'll see if I can beg a few tickets off our director of team travel, Roger Reilly. I love sitting in the seats, and reminding myself of the people that I'm talking to. The people that come and they bring their kids, they got their hot-dogs and the banners, the popcorn and their buddies that have had one too many beers and they're having a great time. I want to sit with those people. I've done that about five times this year. That's really where I'm entertained, sitting in the seats.

Which is harder to cover: a blowout or a marathon like the 18-inning Padres game?
The blowout's much harder to cover. You know us - we're not afraid to have fun and/or roll in a lot of soundbites, because I like to do interviews with players on both sides. But you start knowing that you're doing your best to fill and, if not to look away from the game, to talk about things other than the game, because the game's not pretty any more. That's more challenging. There's nothing easier than calling a tight game.

I was talking to  a writer from the Giants today, and he said, "Boy, you've got to be looking forward for this to end, it's got to be really tough." Actually, I've learned more this year than i've ever learned in any year in my career. Going to both sides, learning from a new manager, learning from the previous manager, learning how players felt around the chance, talking with other players in other locker rooms about what we've been through - I've learned more this year. I wouldn't wish it upon any broadcaster every year, but calling a 90-win season for a team that goes to the playoffs, like a couple of years ago? That's pretty easy. You just tell people what they're seeing, and it's good, and people want to watch. So I've learned a lot this year.

How so you keep your enthusiasm going for meaningless games at the end of a disappointing year?
I love baseball. I love my job. I get paid enough to pay all my bills, and make sure I stay out of debt, to call baseball games. I grew up around the game with my father, I played two years in the minor-leagues after playing in college, and then I had ten years where I was away from the game. I worked at CNN, I had great experiences, I learned a lot about television, but I was not at the ballpark and I was dying - I was lucky my Dad still worked in the game. So, for me, are you kidding me? At this point in the season, I have no problem being here, I love being here. There will come a time, after I catch up with my family an catch my breath, when I'm dying for it again. And it won't take that long.

What are the best and worst things about the state of the current game?
I think the best thing we see about the game of baseball is the way that these young athletes are adapting to the game. It's trying to clean itself up and in doing so there are some guys that aren't playing the game any more, and we're seeing a lot of young athletes like Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzalez. We're seeing a lot of the youth now, take the game to the next level. Two seasons ago, the average age dropped a full year in one winter. I think that's great, because it also ties into the fact, I hope, that the game's cleaning itself up.

No-one's convinced and nor should they be, because there were so many bad things - and on the flip side, that's the worse thing about the game. We don't know all the answers. We don't know with regard to, guys finding their way around science, guys still being able to skirt the rules with HGH, and so to me, the best and the worst are all tied into one. Because the game is the game, and has been the same in its purest form, and people like it or dislike it, for a hundred-plus years.

Do you think it would be a good or bad thing if the 104 alleged names on the steroid list came out?
I think it would a very good thing, as long as we then moved forward. As much as I think it would be a good thing, I still want to know when we get to move on. I understand the media's job is to investigate, and they're doing a great job - we've grown into a world now where there's the media, and there's the secondary media, the work you do. It's everyone's job to get to the bottom of it. I hope at some point we're actually at the very rock-bottom and this would help. It would embarrass some more people, it would mean more people have some explaining to do - but at the end of the day, would be really, truly be surprised? I don't think we would.

You're coming to the end of your third seasons here in Arizona. How do you feel your style has changed?
You asked me about being a fan, very excitable - I think that with my comfort here with our fan-base and our players, I think that's probably gone from about a 10 to an 8. There used to be a lot more hollering and yelling, stuff like that. Still, my passion is there: I was so excited to come here, for this opportunity, and then the way we played out of the gates [in 2007], it was incredible. Have I become more understated? I hesitate to say it, because I don't ever want to lose my passion, but maybe just a little bit. Some might argue and laugh when they hear me say that, but I think that's the only way my style has changed. I've learned a lot, so I hope you are maybe hearing some new things. The other thing that has changed dramatically, which needs to be spoken of, is I understand the numbers behind the game more than I ever have.

I have noticed you seem to be leaning towards using more statistics. Which ones do you look at when evaluating a player?
For hitters, for pitchers, for defenders, it's obviously very different. It was interesting spending time sitting with John Dewan, talking about the Fielding Bible, we interviewed him in Milwaukee - there are no real true answers scientifically on fielding metrics, but they're interesting, they give you a guide. I don't know how many of those numbers you'll hear on the air, but I think we've evolved now to where we hope we don't scare people with OPS, ERA+, which leads us into OPS+.

The other thing I use, even if it's more percentages: line-drive percentages, home-run rate, fly-ball rate, infield-fly/fly-ball rate - like with Chris Young. For me, what I've learned is that to use it on the air, it's got to be glaring, it's got to be something that this guy will buy into [points at Grace's chair]. Which is a good challenge, because he represents the catholic baseball fan in a lot of ways, and it also has to be something that is tied to league average.

As a whole, Arizona fans often seem less passionate than many teams. Do you agree, and if so, why is it?
If you're going to be counting turnstile numbers, I'd say probably right now, yes. I came from a place in Milwaukee where they're drawing three million fans, but all I know is that person-to-person, all the fans I meet are exactly like the fans in the Midwest. Because of the economy here, and how hard it's been hit, the turnstiles haven't been burning up, and because of the fact that you've got a team that's going to lose a lot of ballgames this year. But I can only go on my personal involvement with people, that's the only thing I know to do, and person-to-person it's the same - the passion is there, people love baseball. You have a place where you go, and have people that interact with you, and you feel it, you unearth it.

And I also think the thing that gets overlooked here is this is a baby major-league baseball market, with people from all over the country. My daughters go to school with what will be the real Diamondbacks' fans. A lot of the current Diamondbacks' fans either moved here or the team came here - yes, there's been a lot of success, but we are now raising the future of the Diamondbacks and I think that's one thing, I hope, this organization gets.

Tell us something about your partner that might surprise us.
Besides all the rumors and innuendo! The one thing that I think would surprise everyone about a guy who has more fun than anyone else, loves the game, is that he really does his homework, he prides himself on that. The one thing that has blown me away this year is in our post-game shows that we've hosted together, every interview that I do, he wants to be a part of it. He wants to come down and interact with the players, he wants to get inside their heads, and you can't even imagine how much that helps. I don't think people would understand how much he has wanted to grow this year, because a lot if it comes naturally. And that fun-loving guy? There's more to him than that. Ah, we were just talking about you...

[At this point, Mark Grace arrived in the booth, having done the post-game show. I quickly vacated his chair to let him get settled in, but Daron gave us a few more minutes of his time.]

Take us through a typical day for you at the ballpark.
I'm going to go with on the road, because I can gauge it better. I will do all my starting pitcher preparations, statistically, before I go to the ballpark, and that generally takes about an hour. I arrive at the ballpark, and I usually spend about an hour-and-a-half downstairs. That means interacting with both clubhouses, with a notebook in hand, where I'm making notes, but also, there are times where I have to go with my cameraman and do interviews. So there's probably another half hour spent waiting for interviews, lining up interviews and doing both sides. Then I come back upstairs and spend about another hour-and-a-half on the starting line-ups: statistics, biographies, stuff for our pre-game tease.

The one thing I never like to feel before a game is rushed. Even with you and I talking today, when I was asked, "What's the best time?", I was "Let's do six pm, so I have a finish line," and can back everything up a half-hour. At home, it's different, because I don't - unless my family is out of town - do one ounce of anything at home. That's their time. If they're at school, my wife's off doing something else, I'll immediately go cheat a little bit on my homework. So that extra hour I do at the hotel, I'll probably do at the ballpark, it just tightens everything up. At home, I leave at 1:30 for a 6:40 game.

Which other commentators do you respect the most?
Jon Miller. He is, to me, far and away beyond anyone else, because he's able to be human, able to have humor, able to interact with a challenging color analyst, just because of his Hall of Fame caliber, in Joe Morgan - their personalities are totally different, but Jon makes it work. He's kind of my hero, so it's an easy question. I think the entire quarter up there, of Krukow and Kuiper, and Flemming and Miller, are what we all aspire to be. Those four are the best four in baseball. There are other good ones, and we hope some day we can be looked at like Krukow and Kuiper - and then there's Jon Miller. i was raised in California, on Vin Scully. I was mentored a lot by Ernie Harwell, through my early times as a broadcaster. And I will always be grateful for those times - but, to me, Jon Miller's the best.

You've probably seen more of the Diamondbacks than anyone else this season. What do you think is the most important thing for them to address this winter?
Wow. I don't know if there's enough space on your website to answer that one! Assuming that everyone plays to their abilities next year and it's better, they've got to have a veteran presence in that clubhouse. They've got to have somebody who can come of the bench and show these guys the way, and probably someone in the bullpen to do the same thing as well. If they don't sign Doug Davis, they need another proven starting pitcher, they can't fill the last two spots with the likes of Billy and Yusmeiro. You just can't. So they'd need a veteran starting pitcher. They have one - I don't know if he's going to cost too much - in Davis. And they need to figure out where Chris Snyder fits in, because Miguel Montero is going to play, just about every day. Snyder getting hurt, is going to be tougher to trade.

Those are some things they need to figure out right away. And, my gosh, they've got to get answers on Conor - he's going to go play winter ball. They've got to get an answer on Brandon Webb, but I don't see how they don't pick up that option. Unfortunately, after a season which could have 90-100 losses, the list is pretty long, as we kiddingly said earlier. But there's just not one thing, there's a lot of things. The encouraging thing to me is, as we talked about earlier, there's a lot of good, talented young athletes, and this team really underachieved. You look at where they stand and where they should be - the Pythagorean - and they're well below. So just play to your level. If they'd just played to their level, I'm not going to panic about things that need to be improved.

[With first pitch fast approaching, it was time to wrap up, but I did get to fire a couple of quick questions at Mark Grace before making my exit.]

I asked him the same thing about you, so I want you to tell me something about Daron that'd surprise us.
About broadcasting, or just about him, period?
In general - whatever comes to mind.
[Long pause]
How about, he's one of the cheapest motherf_ckers I've ever met in my life. [Cue laughter in the booth] He throws nickels around like manhole-covers. Deep pockets, short arms.

While he's out of the room [his colleague had gone to the cafeteria], make a pitch to us for the Struttin' Suttons.
It has to happen, just because Daron has pushed this "Racing Gracies" thing so hard an he has put so much effort into it, that it just needs to happen. The fans have spoken. They want no part of the Racing Gracies. What they do want, and what they deserve, is the Strutting Suttons. A bunch of crew-cuts, fat crew-cutted guys out there, running around, that won't shut the f_ck up.

Daron said that the team are in most need of veteran presence. Would you agree with that?
They need nine guys who can catch the baseball. The defense was terrible this year. They need to do a better job of catching the baseball. Only one team was worse in all the game, and that's the Washington Nationals. Defense. If you give a major-league team four and five outs, they're going to kill you.

[Thanks to Daron and Mark for their time and the responses, and also all those others who helped to make the interview possible.]