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The Very Best Act in Town
Jack Olsen
April 25, 1994
When this SI Classic ran in 1963, Sandy Koufax was in his prime but wary about how long it would last
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April 25, 1994

The Very Best Act In Town

When this SI Classic ran in 1963, Sandy Koufax was in his prime but wary about how long it would last

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A typical sequence of Koufaxian thought patterns occurred in the fifth inning of the Philadelphia game against a strong hitter, Don Demeter. Koufax said later, "After I got behind 3 and 0, I threw two fastballs for strikes. Then I tried to get him out on a real good fastball. He fouled it off. So I lost confidence in the fastball, and I went to the curveball. To be on the safe side, I could have challenged him again and thrown the fastball. But I felt that Don could hit a fastball out of the park. And I figured the worst thing that could happen with a curveball would be that I would walk him, but then, at least, I could start even up on the next hitter. At 3 and 2, a pitcher is behind. I just didn't want to challenge him again with another fastball. So I threw him the curve." Demeter struck out.

Little puzzles like how to pitch to a Demeter make life more than bearable for Koufax, now that he has the equipment to work them out. But sometimes the puzzle is how to straighten himself out. Frequently, he has trouble loosening up in early innings, and he scrooches and squirms all over the mound trying to get the stiffness out. "He looks like a belly dancer out there," says Vin Scully, the Dodger broadcaster. "I tell him he's got to stop wearing those cheap undershirts."

"It's just that he's got very heavy muscles," says Alston. "One day in the shower I noticed this roll, a couple of inches, around his middle. I was gonna kid him about being out of shape, so I reached out and grabbed it. It was hard as a rock. It was muscle."

Koufax has other problems with himself. Every now and then, his wildness comes back, and he will throw five or six pitches like the Koufax of old—all muscle and no finesse, trying to use 100% of his strength, when experience has taught him that he is most effective when he uses about 90% of it in a steady, rhythmical pattern. Sometimes he will forget to concentrate—that is, he will throw a pitch, simply chuck it, without any idea behind it. "You have to have an idea, some sort of plan, on every pitch," he explains, "but sometimes you get tired and forget. Pitchers talk to each other, you know, and one of the things we're agreed on is that when a pitcher gets tired, generally the first thing that gets tired is the head. Then he becomes a thrower instead of a pitcher."

It is slowly getting around both leagues that Koufax is now a pitcher, but the last person to become certain about it will be Koufax himself. Tooling along the Sunset Strip in his bronze chariot, a lovely woman at his side, the undisputed king of his profession may be living the American boy's dream. But he is not kidding himself about how quickly this high life could end. "All last winter, while my finger was healing, I didn't know if my career was over or not," he says. "I had no idea. I don't even know for sure now if the finger will hold up over the whole season, although I think it will. There's some scar tissue in the tip, and it's hard. Sometimes it gets a little tender.

"And there are other things to think about. Sometimes it seems like a dream world. It seems like I should have everything a man could want now, but who knows what's gonna happen. When is it gonna end? I feel that if I could play till I'm 40 or 38 or 36 and be successful till then—sure, then I would have everything I want. But if it's over next year, what have I got? The money I've made I could spend in a very short time. I have some schooling, but I'm not really prepared to do anything except pitch. The thought is always there that it might end quickly. I remember too many great arms, too many pitchers that everybody thought were going to be great, and all of a sudden it was over."

Do such thoughts ever come to him while he is on the mound? "I'll tell you," he says, "some nights out there you feel alone, scared and naked." Then the best pitcher in baseball laughed. But not very hard.

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