For men (and women) of a certain age (which I define as “it takes a few minutes for the back to straighten out when rising from a chair”) and a certain geography (growing up in Southern California) and a certain era (childhood fans of the 1960s Dodgers), Sandy Koufax still means something. So when word began to filter through the Mets facility this morning in Port St. Lucie that Koufax — my boyhood idol, as I’ve confessed numerous times on this blog — was in camp, I grabbed my camera and hustled out to the field.
Sure enough, there was Sandy, still amazingly fit at age 75, leaning against a golf cart and chatting casually with embattled Mets owner Fred Wilpon. The two were classmates at Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School, where, legend had it, Wilpon pitched and Koufax played first base. They remain close, which is why Koufax in past years has been just as likely to show up in Mets camp as in Dodgers camp when it was in Vero Beach, where Koufax lived. In a brief interview with reporters, Koufax said he felt badly for what Wilpon was going through in the whole Bernie Madoff mess.
Now that the Dodgers have moved their spring training to Arizona, Port St. Lucie is Koufax’s spring baseball base. He also has a long-standing relationship with new Mets manager Terry Collins, who used to work in the Dodger organization.
It was fun to watch a steady stream of young Mets players come up to Koufax and shake his hand, as if paying homage to royalty. That’s Koufax talking to right-handed pitcher Blaine Boyer, in camp on a minor-league contract, above. Later, when Koufax moved to another field, he summoned a pitcher named Bobby Parnell and gave him a long pitching dissertation, as Parnell listened with rapt attention. Koufax said later that lefty Chris Capuano has requested a pitching tutorial from him.
As I wrote last year — yes, I tend to obsess on Koufax; indulge me — Koufax has, in his later years, become far more comfortable in the public eye. As he left one field this morning to head to another back field, Koufax stopped to sign autographs for a horde of frenzied fans (pictured at the top of this post), many of whom had cannily came armed with old Koufax photos. He joked and chatted amiably with the fans before heading out with an apology to those he hadn’t gotten to.
It’s been 46 years since Koufax threw his last pitch for the Dodgers at age 30, walking away after a 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 317-strikeout Cy Young season because he didn’t want to deal with the ravages of arthritis. But he doesn’t look like he’s gained an ounce. As one scribe cracked when he saw Koufax today, “He’s the leading candidate for the Mets’ fifth starting job.” Another commented to Wilpon that the writers were thinking of asking Koufax to join them in their daily basketball game.
“You don’t want to do that,” Wilpon replied. “He’s very competitive.”
“And also in better shape than any of us,” another one pointed out.
Yes, I’ll admit to being a little bit star-struck. He’s the one guy in sports that still does that to me. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time today.
(Below, here’s Koufax with his boyhood friend Wilpon. That’s minor-league field coordinator Dickie Scott with them).