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Opening up

Elusive, quiet Koufax makes appearance at World Series

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Posted: Sunday October 24, 1999 06:52 PM

  Sandy Koufax is considered by many baseball pundits to be the greatest pitcher ever. AP

ATLANTA (AP) -- Sandy Koufax sat in a corner of the room, softly talking -- about himself!

For more than two decades, he has seldom been seen in public and almost never is heard reminiscing. But on Sunday, on the occasion of his election to baseball's All-Century team, the 63-year-old left-hander discussed his 12-year career, which included a six-year run that may be the greatest ever by a pitcher.

"I'd almost rather have a root canal," he said. "Something like this in those days would draw eight people. Where did you all come from?"

He has become baseball's Garbo.

Kids sometimes think the "K" for strikeouts in scorebooks came about because of him. Many think he's the greatest pitcher ever, the original Dr. K.

Koufax doesn't share that opinion.

"Spahn, not only for what he did on the field -- he'll kill me for doing this -- he pitched in the whole damn century," Koufax said.

Warren Spahn spent 21 seasons in the major leagues and won 363 games, the most ever by a left-hander. While Koufax was 165-87 with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, he will be forever remembered for going 129-47 from 1961-66, three times finishing with an ERA under 2 and once coming in just above at 2.04.

He finished second in the All-Century voting, trailing Nolan Ryan 992,040 to 970,434. He beat out Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Spahn in fan voting. Some pretty great players, he admitted, didn't make the 30-man All-Century team.

"I don't know if it detracts from the legitimacy of it, but it does make it partially a popularity contest," he said, adding that some greats who missed "played at the wrong time, they played in small cities."

He looked like anyone's uncle, nondescript, his hair getting whiter by the year. You wouldn't know that he led the Dodgers to a World Series sweep of the New York Yankees in 1963 and a seven-game win over the Minnesota Twins two years later.

His career started slowly when he first joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955.

"I didn't know where you went for batting practice," he said. "Joe Black had to show me around."

Koufax was wild as a youngster -- on the field, not off. He had two winning records in his first six seasons, never finishing more than two games above .500. After going 8-13 in 1960, everything changed. He learned control and wound up 18-13 with 269 strikeouts the following year.

"I think the biggest thing was I got to pitch on a regular basis," he said, adding that his roommate, Norm Sherry, gave some advice.

Koufax went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and 306 in 1963, followed that with records of 19-5, 26-8 and 27-9, ERAs of 1.74, 2.04 and 1.73, and strikeouts totals of 223, 382 and 317.

Then, it all stopped. He retired. He took his flaming fastball and nasty curve and went home, becoming a broadcaster for a few seasons.

"I didn't regret making the decision. I regretted having to make the decision," he said. "At the time, I was risking the use of my arm -- the normal use of my arm."

He had felt numbness in his fingers, and quit rather than risk permanent damage. He kept throwing a little until four years ago, when he hurt his rotator cuff. Other than that, the left arm still works.

"Normal for a 63-year-old," he said.

He won Cy Young Awards in 1963, 1965 and 1966, the standard until Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux came along, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971 on the first ballot.

The plaques pile up, but that's not all that important to Koufax. He talks about teammates, not trophies, about what joy the Yankees and Braves were experiencing by playing in the World Series.

"The biggest honor is what happens on the field," he said. "Everything else that happens late in life is anticlimactic."

He still watches baseball, admires Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez and "a bunch of guys here in Atlanta, because I believe in the outside corner." But he doesn't like the current philosophy of most pitching coaches.

"Changing speeds is more important than ball movement," he said. "I don't believe that."

He also feels more distant from the Dodgers since Peter O'Malley and sister Terry Seidler sold the team last year to the Fox division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

"I grew up with Peter and Terry. They're about the same age," Koufax said. "Part of the affinity is the people. I'm still a Dodger fan, but it's not the same people."

He shows up at spring training and talks about Dodgers pitchers, makes an occasional appearance to talk with pitchers on the Mets. He was teammates at Lafayette High with team co-owner Fred Wilpon, whom he says was a much better batter and pitcher in high school.

He even makes it back to Brooklyn once in a while -- "I went to a pretty good Italian restaurant a year ago," he said.

With all the attention players get these days, some wonder whether Koufax would have put up with it. He says he could.

Koufax talked about how he hasn't changed his telephone number in 11 years and how some players change theirs every two or three months.

But make no mistake, he's not about to become another talking head former athlete on TV.

He has no desire to write about himself, no notion of setting the record straight when untruths are said. He just wants to be himself, not Sandy Koufax, Hall of Famer.

"I don't care what anybody says about me," he said. "What can I do?"


 
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