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The Left Arm of God
Tom Verducci
July 12, 1999
He was a consummate artist on the mound, the most dominant player of his time, yet he shunned fame and always put team above self. On the field or off, Sandy Koufax was pitcher perfect
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July 12, 1999

The Left Arm Of God

He was a consummate artist on the mound, the most dominant player of his time, yet he shunned fame and always put team above self. On the field or off, Sandy Koufax was pitcher perfect

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In Vero Beach, where Koufax spends much of his time now, the townsfolk choose not to speak his name when they come upon him in public. They will say, "Hello, Mr. K.," when they run into him at the post office or, "Hello, my good friend," rather than tip off a tourist and risk creating one of those moments Koufax detests.

"Sandy has a quiet, productive way about him," says Garagiola, president of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), a charity that helps former players in medical or financial straits. Garagiola sometimes calls Koufax to ask him to speak with former players who are particularly hurting. "He can't really understand that," Garagiola says. "He's got a great streak of modesty. He'll say, 'What do they want to talk to me for?' He is a Hall of Famer in every way. He'll make an impact. You won't know it and I won't know it, but the guy he's helping will know it. Above anything else, I'll remember him for his feelings for fellow players."

There was an outfielder named Jim Barbieri who joined the Dodgers during the 1966 pennant race. He was so nervous that he would talk to himself in the shower, and the pressure so knotted his stomach that he once threw up in the locker room. One day Koufax motioned toward Barbieri in the dugout and said to Fairly, "I have a responsibility to guys like him. If I pitch well from here on out, I can double that man's income." Koufax, who was referring to World Series bonus money, went 8-2 the rest of tire season. From 1963 to '66 he was 14-2 in September, with a 1.55 ERA.

Earlier in that 1966 season a television network offered Koufax $25,000 to allow their cameras to trail him on and off the field. Koufax said he would do it for $35,000, and only if that money was divided so that every Dodgers player, coach and trainer received $1,000.

Koufax attends Garagiola's BAT dinner in New York City every winter, and always draws the biggest crowd among the many Hall of Famers who sign autographs during the cocktail hour. "I grew up in Brooklyn," says Lester Marks of Ernst and Young, which secured the Koufax table this year. "I went to Ebbets Field all the time. I'm 52.1 thought seeing Sandy Koufax pitch was the thrill of a lifetime, but meeting him as an adult was an even bigger thrill. My guests were shocked at what a down-to-earth gentleman he is."

After this year's dinner I walked through the crowded ballroom toward Koufax's table, only to see him hustle to a secured area on the dais. He posed for pictures with the Toms River, N.J., Little League world champions. Then he was gone, this time for a night of refreshments in Manhattan with New York Mets pitcher Al Leiter, as close to a protégé as Koufax has in baseball.

I should mention that I did meet Sandy Koufax a few years ago, before I embarked on this quest to find out what makes him run. I was at Dodgertown, standing next to the row of six pitching mounds adjacent to the Dodgers' clubhouse. "Sacred ground," as former Dodgers pitcher Claude Osteen calls it, seeing as it was here that Branch Rickey hung his famous strings, forming the borders of a strike zone at which every Dodgers pitcher from Newcombe to Koufax to Sutton to Hershiser took aim. (Koufax was so wild as a rookie that pitching coach Joe Becker took him to a mound behind the clubhouse so he would not embarrass himself in front of teammates and fans.) Tan and lean, Koufax looked as if he had just come in from the boardwalk to watch the Los Angeles pitchers throw. He was dressed in sandals, a short pair of shorts and a polo shirt. I said something to him about the extinction of the high strike. Koufax said that he hadn't needed to have that pitch called a strike in order to get batters to swing at his high heater. When I followed up with a question about whether baseball should enforce the high strike in today's strike zone, Koufax's face tightened. I could almost hear the alarms sounding in his head, his warning system announcing, This is an interview! He smiled in a polite but pained way and said in almost a whisper, "I'd rather not," and walked away.

When chatty reporters aren't around, that lonely pedestal called a pitching mound still gives Koufax great pleasure. He is the James Bond of pitching coaches. His work is quick, clean, stylish in its understatement and usually done in top-secret fashion. He has tutored Cleveland's Dwight Gooden and L.A.'s Chan Ho Park on their curveballs and Houston's Mike Hampton on his confidence; convinced L.A.'s Kevin Brown that it was O.K. to lead his delivery with his butt; and taught former Dodger Orel Hershiser to push off the rubber with the ball of his foot on the dirt and the heel of his foot on the rubber. Hershiser removed some spikes from the back of his right shoe so that he could be more comfortable with Koufax's style of pushing off.

Koufax has tried since 1982 to teach his curveball technique to Mets closer John Franco. "I can't do it," Franco says. "My fingers aren't big enough to get that kind of snap." Koufax was God's template for a pitcher: a prizefighter's back muscles for strength, long arms for leverage and long fingers for extra spin on his fastball and curveball. The baseball was as low as the top of his left ankle when he reached back to throw in that last calm moment of his delivery—like a freight train cresting a hill—just before he flung the weight and force of his body toward the plate.

His overhand curveball was vicious because his long fingers allowed him to spin the ball faster than anybody else. Most pitchers use their thumb to generate spin, pushing with it from the bottom of the ball and up the back side. Koufax could place his thumb on the top of the ball, as a guide—similar to the way a basketball player shooting a jumper uses his off-hand on the side of the ball—because his long fingers did all the work, pulling down on the baseball with a wicked snap. On the days he wasn't pitching Koufax liked to hold a ball with his fastball and curveball grips because he believed it would strengthen the muscles and tendons in his left hand by just the tiniest bit.

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