Koufax back in uniform for Dodgers
By GREG BEACHAM
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Even from a distance, the rangy old man in gray uniform pants and a blue hoodie clearly is no ordinary coach. Players pay uncommonly close attention to his advice, and fans crane their necks as he moves easily around the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training complex.
Up close, it’s unmistakably Sandy Koufax, maybe the greatest left-hander ever to step on a mound.
On another sparkling day in Arizona, the 77-year-old Hall of Famer is in his element — teaching, joking around and relishing baseball’s camaraderie during another spring in the sunshine.
“I enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed it,” Koufax said. “I like talking pitching. It may be the only thing I’ve ever known, or been good at.”
Koufax hadn’t worn a major league uniform for more than two decades until the Dodgers got him back in blue this spring as a special adviser to owner Mark Walter. After years of arm’s-length relationships with the Dodgers’ various owners and a few springs working with the Mets, Koufax has accepted the embrace of the big-money ownership group that’s eager to restore the beloved franchise’s connection with its past while moving into a promising future.
“If everybody stays healthy and everybody lives up to their expectations here, this is a great ballclub,” Koufax said. “There’s a lot of talented people in this camp. The best money can buy.”
Koufax works with Dodgers pitchers and their regular coaches in the mornings, making small adjustments and suggestions — a change in arm angle out of the windup, or maybe a different foot placement on the rubber out of the stretch. He’s modest about his help, claiming no special insight that the pitchers or catchers couldn’t get from other sources.
“There’s no one way to do this,” Koufax said. “There’s just so many ways to pitch to get people out. There’s the best way to throw, and then there’s another way. That’s pitching. Sometimes people get people out because they don’t do everything right. Ball movement is still the most important thing.”
Nearly 46 years after his early retirement, the current Dodgers are all aware of the weight of Koufax’s words. Manager Don Mattingly still read a list of Koufax’s accomplishments to them earlier this spring.
Three Cy Young Awards. Four World Series titles. Four no-hitters. An NL MVP award and two World Series MVP honors in just 12 seasons in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
“Sandy is just really like one of the guys,” Mattingly said. “I know he has that aura about him of being kind of — everybody is afraid to talk to him almost, but with us, it’s great.”
Indeed, Koufax seems perfectly comfortable around the Dodgers, chatting with everybody in sight as he roams the complex. The descriptions of a taciturn, reclusive talent forced out of the game too soon by arthritis in his left elbow just don’t match the charming fellow high-fiving Andre Ethier’s two young sons before giving a rare interview.
“I’m trying to figure out who says I’m private,” Koufax said with a grin. “I’m at the Final Four. I go to golf tournaments. I go to the movies. I go to dinner. I live my life. Somebody wrote that 50 years ago, and they’re still writing that. … I don’t care what anybody says. I’m past caring.”
At 35 pounds lighter than his playing weight, Koufax still moves with the grace of a man from a younger generation. He relishes a lively discussion with pitchers and other instructors, including Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who welcomed Koufax to camp.
“He’s outgoing. He’s got suggestions,” Mattingly said. “He sees stuff. He’ll ask me questions about a popup thing we do, or how we’re going to run things. Yeah, we talk. He’s got a question about this or that, little stuff that he sees, or maybe the way they ran something a little differently.”
Baseball people rarely miss the chance to thank Koufax for his impact on their lives. Ed Farmer, the Chicago White Sox’s play-by-play radio broadcaster, got curveball tips from Koufax in the late 1960s and used them throughout a 13-year major league career.
After the two spoke this week, Farmer said Koufax “made me a lot of money.”
“You’ve got to have clay to mold,” Koufax replied. “Then some guys are granite, and you have to chip at it.”
Koufax spent the 1970s as a minor league instructor for the Dodgers, and he has visited camp with former manager Joe Torre in recent years, although he never stayed more than a few days or did much teaching. He also worked with a few Mets pitchers in recent years at the behest of owner Fred Wilpon, his high-school buddy.
But Koufax last wore a uniform as a minor league pitching instructor in 1989, and he publicly split with the Dodgers during Fox’s ownership tenure reportedly in a rift over a story published about him by another arm of the media conglomerate.
Los Angeles fans never forgot him — in fact, they swarmed his car in Glendale as he left after his first day this week.
Koufax doesn’t enjoy the rapturous attention, but he still loves baseball.
“It’s fun,” Koufax said, eyes sparkling beneath his gray Dodgers cap. “I’m having a good time. If I wasn’t having a good time, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
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