Koufax may be the best pitching coach alive, though he wants no part of that job's high visibility or demands on his time. He cannot be pinned down any easier than a tuft of a dandelion blown free by the wind. After quitting NBC in February 1973, Koufax didn't take another job until 1979, when he explained that his return to the Dodgers as a roving minor league pitching coach was partly due to financial concerns. Koufax pitched 12 years in the majors and made only $430,500 in salary. He has steadfastly rejected endorsement offers and supplements his income with perhaps two card shows a year.
In the '80s Koufax enjoyed staying under the big league radar by doing his coaching for the Dodgers at the minor league level, in places such as San Antonio, Albuquerque and Great Falls, Mont., where he liked to stay up late talking pitching with the players and staff. He likes helping young players. In Great Falls he saw the potential of a righthander the organization was down on for being too hot-tempered. "He's got the best arm on the staff," Koufax said. "Stay with this guy." He was right about John Wetteland, the Texas Rangers' closer, now in his 11th season as one of the most reliable short relievers in baseball.
Koufax abruptly quit the Dodgers in February 1990. O'Malley had thought he was doing Koufax a favor by ordering the farm director to cut back on Koufax's assignments in 1989, but Koufax told O'Malley, "I just don't think I'm earning what you're paying me." He also was ticked off when one of the Dodgers bean counters bounced back an expense report to him over a trivial matter. Since then Koufax has worked on an ad hoc basis, ready to help his friends. Fox baseball analyst Kevin Kennedy, who carries a handwritten note from Koufax in his wallet, invited him to spring training in 1993 when Kennedy was managing the Texas Rangers. Koufax stayed one week, insisting that he wear an unmarked jersey with a plain blue cap rather than the team's official uniform. "He really enjoyed it," says Osteen, who was Kennedy's pitching coach. "Every night we'd go out to dinner and just talk baseball deep into the night. At the end of the week he said, 'You know, I've really had a good time.' I was floored. For him to acknowledge how he felt was a major, major thing. Believe me. I could tell he had missed the game. But at the same time, after a week of it he was ready to go back to his own private life. One week was enough."
Last year Koufax visited the Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as a favor to owner Fred Wilpon, a former teammate at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, and Dave Wallace, the Mets' pitching coach who befriended Koufax when Wallace was working in the Dodgers' minor league system. Koufax sat in front of the row of lockers assigned to the Mets' pitchers and began talking. A crowd grew, pulling into a tight circle like Boy Scouts around a camp-fire. Koufax looked at Leiter—also a lefthander—and said, "Al, you've had a nice career. Pitched in the World Series. But you can be better."
"I know," Leiter said. "Can you help me?"
Koufax liked that. He showed Leiter how he used to push off the rubber. He asked Leiter about where he aimed a certain pitch, and when Leiter said, "I'm thinking outer half—" Koufax cut him off. "Stop!" he said. "You never think outer half. You think a spot on the outside corner. Think about throwing the ball through the back corner of the plate, not to it."
What Koufax stressed most was that Leiter needed to pitch away more to righthanded hitters. Koufax lived on fastballs on the outside corner. Leiter, who says that many hitters today dive into the ball, prefers to pound cut fastballs on their fists. But Koufax showed Leiter how to make the ball run away from righthanders by changing the landing spot of his right foot by one inch and by letting his fingers come off slightly to the inside half of the ball. And Koufax shared the lesson that saved his career, the lesson it took him six years in the big leagues to learn: A fastball will behave better, with just as much life and better control, if you throttle back a little. "Taking the grunt out of it," is how Koufax put it.
In 1961 Koufax was a career 36-40 pitcher with awful control problems. He was scheduled to throw five innings in the Dodgers spring training B game against the Twins in Orlando, but the other pitcher missed the flight, and Koufax said he'd try to go seven. His catcher and roommate, Norm Sherry, urged him to ease up slightly on his fastball, throw his curve and hit his spots. Koufax had nothing to lose; manager Walter Alston and the front office were at the A game. Cue the chorus of angels and dramatic lighting. Koufax got it. He threw seven no-hit innings and, as he wrote in his book, "I came home a different pitcher from the one who had left."
A few weeks after Koufax spoke to the Mets' staff, an excited Wilpon approached Leiter in the clubhouse and said, "I don't know what you did with Sandy, but he wants you to have his home number. I've never known him to do this before with any player. If you ever want to talk with him, just give him a call."
Leiter says he rang the dial-a-legend line three or four times. "I wasn't sure what to do," he says. "I didn't want to call so much where he would think I was taking advantage of our friendship. On the other hand, I didn't want to not call, and he'd think, 'That guy is blowing me off.' It's kind of delicate, you know what I mean? But Sandy's cool. Real cool." At 32, Leiter had the best season of his career (17-6, 2.47). "I accepted the idea of throwing outside more," he says. "The times when I did it fairly often were the three or four most dominating games I had all year."