Koufax Coming Home to Dodgers
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The uniform fits more loosely, now, he says, than it used to -- 35 pounds and a lifetime ago. The pants are a bit longer; he's not quite 6-foot-2 anymore.
The fastball isn't quite there, (at 77, would you expect it to be?) but the long, spindly fingers -- the DNA of the perfect curve -- can still wrap around your hand twice over. The eyes -- those probing, analytical orbs that used to fillet their way through any weakness in any swing -- they're still as bright as ever, still as keen.
For the first time since 1989 -- officially -- Sandy Koufax is back in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, for two weeks, at least, serving as a pitching instructor, part of the obligation of a one-year contract that includes a role as special adviser to club chairman Mark Walter.
The last time Koufax stepped on a field in anything other than a polo shirt and slacks was when he was the minor league pitching instructor for the Dodgers over 20 years ago. Now, it may not be the familiar flannel, but it's still No. 32.
"We just talked when he got here. That first day, he just wanted to be around. I think, more than anything, I just fed off of what he wanted to work with, the parameters he's most comfortable in, and that's one-on-one," says Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.
He's been back, since his last official stint, periodically, always lurking in the shadows, it seems, on the back fields and in the most hidden of bullpens, imparting his knowledge only to those who had the courage to ask.
"He wants you to go to him," Honeycutt says. "If you've got anything, it's not like you can just be a bystander. You have to be engaged. You have to ask the questions. He wants you to initiate the action."
On Friday -- the last day of spring training before games started -- Koufax presided over a 68-pitch bullpen by Chris Capuano and a lengthy session by Chad Billingsley, tinkering and tweaking, molding and teaching.
Despite Koufax's uncanny ability to blend into the background as much as a Hall-of-Famer can, he was front and center Friday, and yes, even held court with a clutch of media just before the end of morning workouts.
"I'm trying to figure out who says I'm private," Koufax smiles. "I go to this, I'm at the Final Four, I go to golf tournaments, I go to the movies, I go to dinner," he says, showing more and more pearly whites with each listed outing.
"I live my life. Somebody wrote that 50 years ago, and they're still writing."
Then, disarmingly, he lowers his voice and says, gently, "I don't care what anybody says. I haven't cared."
Asked if he'll be at next weekend's Honda Classic golf tournament, his lips ease into the hint of a mischievous grin.
"I'm going to go on vacation," he sighs. "I'm working too hard. I'm going on vacation."
Talk with Koufax for any length of time, and you'll find that he's easy with a laugh and a joke, and yes, even self-deprecating. When asked how his legendary left elbow feels, he pauses, and coyly smirks: "You haven't seen me throw anything."
Three years ago, the latest Dodgers southpaw with a trademark Uncle Charlie -- Clayton Kershaw -- shared a flight down to Phoenix with Koufax. Kershaw said at the time that he "learned more in that one plane trip than I have in a long time."
When he hears that, Koufax humbly demurs.
"That's nice of him, but he knew a lot going in," says Koufax, who, despite his 165 wins, 2.76 career ERA, 2,396 strikeouts, three Cy Young Awards and an MVP, still pleads reflected greatness, if anything. "If you hang around enough talented people, you look smart."
Kershaw has been under Koufax's wing practically since he came up to the big leagues. It didn't take much time -- if any -- for scouts and media to see his mid-90s velocity and his Bugs Bunny bender and think of one name, where, as Vin Scully once said, "that 'K' stands out even more than the o-u-f-a-x."
Kershaw was one of those youngsters who used to throw bullpens in those backmost of back bullpens, with Koufax looking on, steadily, patiently. What he learned from Koufax can't be expressed in any kind of shorthand, nor does Kershaw want to reveal the Talmudic teachings -- the Midrash of the Mound, as it were -- to the uninitiated. What he shares with Koufax is something that he prefers to keep personal. Maybe it's just a lefty thing.
"He definitely taught me a lot," Kershaw says. "It's just fun to talk baseball with him, but that, that's for me."
When Chicago White Sox broadcaster and former Pale Hose righty Ed Farmer pulls up in a golf cart -- coming from the other side of the Camelback Ranch complex -- he shows Koufax a photo of him, pitching for the American League in the 1980 All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. He's throwing a curve. The same deuce that Koufax taught him.
"I met him when I was 18 years-old," Farmer says. "Alvin Dark introduced me to him. My mom, she didn't know about him pitching. She only knew what he did for his religion. I'm Roman-Catholic, and he took off Yom Kippur, and I said to my mother, ‘You want me to take off Yom Kippur?' She goes, ‘No, I don't need that from my smartass child.'"
He points to the photo, to his torqued elbow, to his hips, as Koufax looks on.
"He said the glove always comes back here, so your shoulders are square going home," Farmer says. "That," Farmer stabs the photo for emphasis, "is a curveball. He said, ‘Hold it on the seam, here,' and he's got huge hands, let's see."
Farmer and Koufax hold their hands up next to one another. Farmer's fingers aren't mangled, but they are far from straight. Koufax's still look like the tools of a concert pianist -- the same fingers that could make a baseball dance and sing.
"I was 18, and he said, ‘You're going to have a good curveball,'" Farmer says. "I made the All-Star Game, led the league in saves and made a lot of money. I'm indebted to him."
He turns to Koufax and says, "God bless you."
It's the only time Koufax looks even the least bit uncomfortable -- when he's told that he inspired such and such, or he was someone's hero, or someone's mother had a teenage crush on him, like every good Jewish girl growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1960s. He's heard it all before, and accepts each handshake and tribute and reverent supplication with grace, but still, 50 years on from his playing days, he'd just rather be on the field. It's hard to blame him.
Farmer says that it was because of Koufax that his curve was so effective. Koufax smiles, widely. He's found an opening for a joke. He breathes a little easier.
"Well, you've got to have clay to model," chuckles Koufax. "Some guys are granite, and you've got to chip away."
From Farmer to Honeycutt to Kershaw, it's hard to find someone in Glendale who hasn't been in some way affected by Koufax.
Honeycutt came to the Dodgers as a player in an August 1983 trade that sent Dave Stewart and Ricky Wright to the Texas Rangers.
"I'd pitched for six years, and never had people discuss or really concentrate on parts that he liked to talk about, which is the lower half," says Honeycutt, who posted the best ERA in the Junior Circuit in the 1983 season. "That's the foundation ... When you start hearing it and start putting it into action, it's so much better, where it creates your lines -- in and out -- to be able to repeat arm slots. For six years, I'd been a sinker-slider dominant pitcher, and I was able to get with him and improve my curveball, which was a pitch that basically I had not used for six years."
Koufax not only influenced Honeycutt as a pitcher, but, down the line, came to influence the way he went about his job as a pitching coach.
"Really him, Red Adams, Dave Wallace, Ron Perranoski, all the great pitching coaches that have been in this system, had influence on a lot of guys -- not just me -- and changed a lot of my beliefs to what I feel are now important," Honeycutt says. "The great thing about having Sandy around is that it never gets old, listening to someone of not only his great talent, but to hear him speak in simple terms what we try to accomplish. I've always felt like I'm almost an extension of him, and those guys that we learned from, because they had -- use your own experiences that you had from other people, but as far as the mechanical side of it, most of my beliefs come from what I learned from him and those other guys."
That's what made it so easy for Honeycutt when Koufax came aboard to help out this spring.
"The more I'm around him, the more I learn, and I'm always trying to learn," says Honeycutt. "He's, in my opinion, he's the best, and there's just such a great way about him. I think you learn pieces from everybody, but when I came back into the system, back in 2001, when Tommy [Lasorda] and Dave Wallace asked me to come back, that was their major goal: To get back to some of the values about pitching that were so prevalent for so many years, that they'd gotten away from."
Manager Don Mattingly only first met Koufax when he joined the organization as hitting coach for former skipper Joe Torre, but he's nevertheless made quite an impact.
"It seems like it was a few years back," Mattingly says. "It had to be here [with the Dodgers]. I think I would have remembered meeting Sandy Koufax before that."
It's not as if Mattingly hasn't been around Hall of Famers before, either. They were just in pinstripes instead of Dodger Blue.
"I don't know if I'm used to it because of the Yankee camps, where it was Yogi [Berra] and Mickey [Mantle] and Whitey [Ford], so it was the same thing. They're just normal guys, once you get out there and start talking baseball," Mattingly says. "Sandy's really just like one of the guys."
It's what he knows. It's what's in his blood. It's been his life ever since he was a fresh-faced rookie, bouncing between the Boys of Summer in the Ebbets Field locker room. It's just baseball, an old friend, welcoming him back home.
"The players are special," Koufax says. "They're having a good time, and they've kind of included me in some stuff. We've talked and a couple of the catchers -- A.J. [Ellis] said, ‘What can I look for here? What can I do to help this guy?' I'm kind of talking to everybody ... It's fun. I'm having a good time. If I wasn't having a good time, I wouldn't be doing it."
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes Cal Sports Digest. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.
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