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Hooton is Happy But Won't Smile

By
RICH TOSCHES, UPI Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Scene: A hotel room in the Dominican Republic packed with baseball players on a New Year's Eve, moments before the onset of 1975. The raucous celebration had just about reached its frenzied climax, spearheaded by Tom Lasorda, now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In a corner sat Burt Carlton Hooton. He was playing solitaire.

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'Hey,' screamed Lasorda to anyone who would listen. 'Doesn't he look happy! It's Happy Hooton.'

In the Dodgers 1981 media guide appear pictures of about 30 players. In three of those pictures, you can't see any teeth. Two pictures are of Davey Lopes and Don Stanhouse. They're smiling, but both have mustaches the size of small dogs covering everything between their nose and bottom lip.

Burt Hooton has no mustache. And he's not smiling. The picture would be more appropriate on a post office bulletin board.

Hooton, the Dodgers' crafty right-hander now in his 11th major league season, reeled off seven consecutive victories to open this season. It was by far his best showing in the major leagues and despite two straight losses that left him at 7-2 following a June 3 loss to Atlanta, he is simply overjoyed with his performance.

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'Sure, it's been a good start,' he said in a voice normally reserved for special occasions, like ordering a cheeseburger and french fries or answering the telephone at 4 a.m.

Even the way he came to the Dodgers in 1975 -- being traded from the Chicago Cubs -- didn't evoke much of a smile from Hooton. Most baseball players would consider a trade from the Cubs right up there with a doctor announcing, 'We mixed up your charts. It's the other guy who has just six months to live.' OK, so the guy hasn't made anyone forget Red Skelton. But Hooton isn't paid to do a Three Stooges routine. He's paid to pitch. And for the first two months of the season, there haven't been many pitchers in the major leagues who have done a better job.

By June 4, he had a 2.52 ERA. But regardless of how well he pitches, Hooton is still best known for being as funny as a hole in a parachute. He understands the situation.

'I'm happier than most of the guys around here,' he said, waving his arm around the crowded Dodger lockerroom. 'I just don't display my emotions. I don't go around laughing and smiling all the time, but that doesn't mean I'm not a happy guy.

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'But on the other side of the coin, it takes a whole lot to upset me. And that consistent emotional level helps keep me going. This life is a constant up and down process, and that's what gets me through it all.'

Hooton's remarkable season has been virtually lost in the crazed atmosphere of Fernandomania, as the city of Los Angeles reached record emotional levels over the dazzling performances of rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela. While Hooton simply went out and posted a 7-0 start, Valenzuela, a 20-year-old from Mexico, went 8-0.

It would hate been very easy and very understandable for Hooton to get up on a stool in the lockerroom and scream, 'Hey, what about me?' But Hooton has probably never screamed in his life. Rather, he thought it was marvelous for Fernando.

'What he was doing was a greater story,' Hooton said. 'Anyone could see that. He's a rookie, he's 20-years-old. He had all those shutouts. It's been just phenomenal for him and the team. It's astounding and I'm glad just to be able to watch it happen.

'And I'm not in this game for the press clippings. I'm happy with what I'm doing and I can't worry about the attention I'm getting or not getting.'

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Hooton and Valenzuela have been the keys to the Dodgers fast break out of the starting gate. The club had the best record in baseball and maintained a steady 5 or 5 game lead in the National League West. Hooton says the key now is not to get complacent.

'It's always harder to stay at the top than it was to get there,' he cautions.

But if the Hooton and the rest of the pitchers continue to mow down the NL, it could be another pennant year for the Dodgers. And that would make Burt Hooton just about the happiest guy in the world.

He might even buy a new deck of cards for his solitaire game.

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