“In the presence of greatness.”
That best describes the event I attended the evening of Saturday, February 27, featuring Dodgers icon Sandy Koufax and current Dodgers manager Joe Torre, appearing on stage at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. It was one for the ages.
As I had posted earlier:
“Koufax, the legendary Dodger who is almost as famous for his reclusiveness as he is for his dominance on the mound, will appear at a special benefit for Dodger manager Joe Torre’s “Safe at Home” Foundation to fight domestic abuse. It will be his first major appearance at such a public event in years. And it won’t be just an “appearance.” He’ll actually have to speak, in a Q&A format, responding to questions inquiring minds want to have answered.”
I was last in his presence in July, 2007 when throngs of baseball fans crowded into Cooperstown, New York for the largest Hall of Fame weekend ever. Sandy Koufax could be seen welcoming Tony Gwynn into the fraternity of the greatest that day, shaking hands with him in a photo that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
He was the author of a miraculous four no-hitters, hurled in four consecutive seasons. I was six years old when Koufax threw his final pitch for the Dodgers, in the 1966 World Series. It’s safe to say I knew only his name and that he was a great pitcher, my dad’s favorite player, and that he was spoken of in terms of reverence and awe. But it would be a few years before I was old enough to truly appreciate all that he was to the game.
As time passed, I became more aware of him as a legend. The dominating lefty continued to be spoken of in terms of greatness. But rarely did he speak, himself. He was written about in glowing superlatives, but avoided interviews, kept to himself, and typically shunned official public appearances. He was discussed as a man who was larger than life, not just the pitcher, but a man of class, a man of conviction.
So that–the aura, the mystique, the rarity–is part of what made this evening with Joe Torre, on stage in front of 7,000 adoring fans, so special. Make no mistake–this was Joe Torre’s fundraiser, Joe Torre’s foundation, and Joe Torre was the man behind it all. But Dodger fans see and hear Torre on a regular basis during the season. Not so with the iconic left-handed pitcher.
On Saturday night, Sandy Koufax received a standing ovation as he walked across the stage at the Nokia Theatre. He sat down under the lights with L.A. Times columnist T. J. Simers and a fellow Brooklynite, Dodgers manager Joe Torre. Then, we the fans got to know him.
He talked, openly, quietly, with a deep but soft voice. One you wouldn’t immediately recognize, because he has said so little on record in decades. The seemingly withdrawn Hall of Famer fielded questions from Simers about his four no-hitters, his teammates, his longstanding friendship with Torre, and many other topics.
He was engaging. He smiled–most of the evening. He deadpanned on occasion. If he was uncomfortable, it didn’t show.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Via audio played back against still frames of the evening of September 9, 1965, the audience was treated to highlights of the ninth inning of Sandy’s perfect game against the Cubs, thanks to Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully’s superb radio account of the final out. Sandy recalled beyond the moment of accomplishing that rarest of feats, that his team was in a pennant race in September: “With a 1-0 lead, you’ve got to win.”
Prior to the perfect game’s finale, Vin had called three other no-hitters by Sandy. He shared that he had begun thinking about what he could do to make this one stand out, and so he added to the broadcast the very thing about baseball that is so insignificant: the clock. Thus, the final out was punctuated with: “It is 9:46 p.m. …”
Scully’s memories were shared on the video screen:
“For me, I was almost Sandy, and I think what he was feeling, I was feeling…
“He had a way of lifting his teammates, inspiring the fans, and I think once in a blue moon, even inspiring a broadcaster.”
Cutting away from the video, Koufax himself appeared visibly touched by Scully’s tribute. Of that night, he recalled: “I don’t know if I’ve ever had better stuff or better control than I did the last two innings of that game.”
Vin spoke of the respect Sandy received from the fans, of applause before every game he started, even on the road: “It was almost like the maestro was ascending the podium to conduct a symphony.” Of course, metaphorically, that’s what happened.
Sandy talked, at times saying little:
On the Juan Marichal-John Roseboro incident, which resulted in a free-for-all during a heated Dodgers-Giants game late in the ’65 season: “I have not set the record straight in 45 years and I’m not about to do it tonight.”
Sandy spoke, at other times saying so much more.
-About the changes in expectations between pitching back then, and today:
“When we were playing, if you didn’t win, you didn’t get a raise…
A quality start is shaking hands with your catcher…
I wasn’t about kicking the water cooler; that’s feeding your ego.”
-About how after the 1960 season, he almost walked away from baseball, throwing out his equipment, and then reconsidering over the offseason to give it another try. The rest is history. (He also noted that he wasn’t walking away from $12 million a year, but $14,000 a year: “It wasn’t that hard a decision.”)
-Of his broadcasting career for NBC covering the Saturday game of the week: “I prayed every Friday night for rain.”
-About Don Drysdale, Koufax’s Hall of Fame counterpart in the Dodgers’ rotation for three world championships between 1959 and 1965: “We made each other better.”
He spoke often throughout the evening of his teammates and the bond they shared throughout the course of the season: “No one game compares to what you share with them over 162 games.”
Several of those teammates were in attendance at the Nokia, notably “Sweet Lou” Johnson, often a presence at Dodger events around town, still popular for his home run in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, and for scoring the only run in the perfect game that season. Tommy Davis, batting champion of the Koufax-Drysdale era, sat nearby. Chris Krug, who was the Cubs’ catcher that evening Koufax was perfect, was seated next to Johnson.
Former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley was also there. So too was Ann Meyers Drysdale, Don’s widow. Koufax and Torre both rose on the stage to join most of the audience in giving a standing ovation to O’Malley
And there were many other VIPs surrounding him. The presence of Angels owner Arte Moreno was mentioned by Simers. Aside from a smart crack about Frank McCourt, not much else was said about the Dodgers’ absent owner. Dodgers coach Don Mattingly was also there.
One of the more entertaining moments of the evening came when “a kid from the audience” was selected to receive pitching tips onstage from Koufax. That kid was none other than current Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw, whose wicked curveball has on occasion been compared to Koufax’s. Kershaw, not yet 22, took
it all in stride.
Of Koufax’s life and career, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated once wrote:
Koufax was the kind of man boys idolized, men envied, women swooned over and rabbis thanked, especially when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. And when he was suddenly, tragically done with baseball, he slipped into a life nearly monastic in its privacy.
Sandy Koufax retired following the 1966 World Series, at age 30, rather than continue to pitch in constant pain. At age 36, he became the youngest Hall of Fame inductee, elected in his first year of eligibility.
Not that the whole 90 minute discussion was only about Sandy. Joe Torre shared plenty of anecdotes, as well.
But as teammate Johnson noted of Koufax:
“He has a presence about him that is like…the Pope.”
And I concur.
Before, during, and after the event, I saw old friends–some briefly–chatted with others, in-depth, and I even met new friends.
The anticipation and build-up to the evening were great, and rather than be let down, I was treated to a delightful experience beyond even my own expectations. The man who was immortal on the mound, a legend for the ages, was condensed into a very down-to-earth human being.
For fans of old school baseball, it lived up to its billing and beyond.
Torre concluded the evening with a simple, “Our foundation certainly thanks you for being here.”
So does a generation of Dodger fans who were born too late, and so do those who were blessed to have been there for Koufax the first time around. I’ll bet my dad was smiling down from heaven on this evening.
Not many things could make me want to drive 100 miles in the rain on a dreary Saturday afternoon. This did, and it was well worth it.
As has been noted, talking on the record is not something Sandy Koufax has been known for in years. But February 27, 2010 was a night many people will be talking about for some time.